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A commentary on Lama Tsongkhapa's text which covers the entire Buddhist path to enlightenment.
A teaching on The Three Principal Aspects of the Path by Ven. Denma Lochö Rinpoche at  Jamyang Buddhist Centre, London, in early October 2001.

The Three Principal Aspects of the Path is a text by Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) which covers the entire Buddhist path to enlightenment.

CHAPTERS
Part 1: Renunciation
Part 2: Renunciation
Part 3: Bodhicitta
Part 4: Correct View of Emptiness

Part 2: Renunciation

So to begin the teaching, let us correct our attitude, and contemplate - as far as space extends are existing countless sentient beings in a state of dissatisfaction or suffering. In order to separate or liberate each and every one of those sentient beings, I myself must achieve the highest unsurpassable enlightenment and in order to do that I am now going to receive the commentary on the unmistaken path in the form of The Three Principles of the Path.

The Benefits of Hearing the Teaching

So again to reflect upon the benefits of listening to the teaching - if we use a quotation from a text called 'Wisdom', then the first line of this reads that 'listening is the lamp which dispels the darkness of ignorance'. So here the example is quite clear - in a worldly sense, if we walk into a dark room holding an oil lamp, or if we just turn the light on, through having light in that room we are able to see what previously we couldn't see because the room was dark. So in the same way, if we think about the things which are to be taken up, the things which are to be abandoned, or the karmic law of cause and effect, or the view of suchness (that is to say the correct view of reality) as the objects to be seen in a room, then the light which will dispel the darkness of ignorance with regard to those particular objects which are to be seen in the room is the hearing of the teaching. So through hearing then we are able to dispel ignorance about what objects are to be known (for example, the karmic law of cause and effect), and what is to be taken up and what is to be abandoned with regard to our behaviour. Then when we reflect upon this practice of hearing, it's not just hearing the teaching; the way we make the lamp blaze forth is through hearing the teaching and then contemplating the meaning of that and then meditating upon that in a single-pointed fashion. For example if we take thusness, then through initially hearing the teaching on that, contemplating the meaning of that and then single-pointedly meditating upon that, we are able to achieve liberation from the cycle of existence. Again then the root of this liberation is hearing the teaching. It is like wanting to do something within a room and then carrying in an oil lamp to then be able to see what forms, what objects, are in that room and then getting to grips with those objects, or working with those objects. So hearing the teaching initially then is something very important as it is like the lamp which dispels the ignorance with regard what is to be taken up and what is to be abandoned ie the karmic law which for us as practitioners is something that is extremely important and something that we should become very familiar with; and then with regard to suchness, or the ultimate mode of phenomena, if we don't understand this correctly then there is no liberation. So if we talk about two kinds of darkness, or two kinds of ignorance, both of which because their nature is darkness, are removed by the lamp of hearing the teaching. So then the 'hearing is the lamp which dispels the darkness of ignorance'.

The second line of the stanza from the text 'Wisdom' reads 'hearing is like the weapon which destroys the enemy of the destructive emotions'. So here then if we think in ancient India what was meant by weapons, it was like throwing-stars, daggers, swords and so forth. However in these modern times there are various other kinds of weapons but whatever the weapon is, it is an object which is used to destroy something else. In this case, the weapon of listening is used to destroy the enemy of the destructive emotions. For example, if we are a person who has a lot of anger, through meditating on its antidote, love, we are able to overcome that enemy of anger and thoroughly destroy it so it is no longer any burden upon our being. In the same way, if we are a person who has a lot of attachment, either for our own physical form or for another's physical form or for some other object like a precious jewel, then we can reverse that attachment by thinking about the repulsiveness of that particular object. Through this meditation we can lessen and then thoroughly remove and destroy this enemy of the destructive emotions which one has in one's mental continuum, or mind. Initially then one must come to recognise what is actually meant by an enemy, what an enemy is, then after having that recognition we must apply the antidote or the weapon. The weapon here which we are going to apply is something that we can only have gained through engaging in the practice of hearing the teaching. So thus in the second line, the actual thing which destroys the enemy of the destructive emotions is like a weapon, and this weapon is brought about, or manufactured, through hearing the teaching. So hearing then is like a 'weapon which destroys the enemy of the destructive emotions'.

The third line says that 'hearing the teaching is the best of all possessions'. What we usually mean by possessions are various things which we might have in our house and which cause us a great amount of anxiety, or worry. That is to say, the more possessions we seem to gain, they just seem to add to our burden of anxiety, that is to say, we worry that they might be carried away by thieves, or we worry about fire in the house, or these days, flooding in the house, destroying the wealth or possessions which we have striven so hard to gain. So in the same way, when we think about the possession of hearing the teaching and the wisdom which arises through that - if we have that in our mindstream it is not something which can be destroyed by the four elements - water, fire and so forth; it is not something that can be carried off by thieves and bandits; it is rather something that is continually with us and which there is no danger of losing. So the third line of this stanza from the text 'Wisdom' instructs us that wisdom is the best of all possessions for those very reasons.

So the last line of this stanza then describes hearing as 'the best of associates or friends'. So we can understand this from our own experience - when fortune is with us then we seem to have a lot of friends or associates around us. However when circumstances change for the worse, we do seem to find that these close, or seemingly close, friends or associates seem to go farther and farther away from us, abandoning us in our time or hour of need. With regard then to the practice of hearing and the knowledge we have gained through that, then in difficult situations or in positive situations, that friend continually remains with us in all circumstances. In a worldly sense then when circumstances are good, we seem to have a lot of friends and then when circumstances are bad, our friends seem to keep a distance and then finally disappear from sight. So actually if we compare ourselves - a person who has heard the Dharma teaching and has contemplated the Dharma teaching and has that kind of friend, with somebody who doesn't have that kind of friend, then during the good times there is not really that much difference between us. However in the difficult times when circumstances change for the worse, we find that through contacting this friend, that is to say bringing to mind the teachings we have heard - like if we lose wealth for example, we can contemplate on the changing nature of the cycle of existence; if we have various sicknesses or illnesses befall us or bereavements and so forth, we can again contemplate on the suffering nature of the cycle of existence; if we are harmed by other human beings or perhaps various snake spirits and so forth - whatever the harmer - we can reflect upon how we might have harmed that particular individual in a previous existence, thus we can contemplate on the karmic law; we can also then expand our view to include others, thinking that this is just a small difficulty when compared with the difficulties of all other sentient beings which are around me and in the world system. Thus we can utilise this friend, we can chat with this friend which is the friend of initially hearing the teaching - this excellent associate which doesn’t abandon us during our hour of need but is continually there for us. Thus hearing the teaching and the knowledge gained therefrom is like the 'best of friends or associates'.

Contemplation on Suffering

So now we come to the text which we are going through. Initially then let us contemplate on dissatisfaction or suffering; the reason for this is that we have to know what suffering is in order to turn away from dissatisfaction or suffering. Through trying to achieve liberation we need to remove this grasping attachment so we have to understand the faults of what we are attached to, and then through understanding those faults, we can turn away from them. At present our mind is infatuated and continually holding on to, or stuck to, the cycle of existence. Through thinking of the faults then of the cycle of existence, we can turn our minds away from the cycle of existence, or the cycle of pain. So this is mentioned by Lama Tsongkhapa in his writings when he says that the more we are able to contemplate on the faults of the cycle of existence, or dissatisfaction, then the stronger our yearning for liberation will become. So this we can see from an example: If we are a prisoner in a prison and we just sit in our room thinking 'well, they give us food, there's good lighting here, I think I'll just stay here' - then for that individual there is no hope, there is no way that that person is going to even take a step outside of his or her prison cell. So in the same way, if an individual is in a prison cell and he or she thinks 'I must get out of this predicament' - through thinking about the benefits of being released from jail - thinking about being able to work in various places, being able to travel to various countries, being able to enjoy various kinds of scenes and enjoyments and so forth; and then thinking about how bound one is in the prison cell - thinking that 'I can't move, I have no freedom to do what I want, I have no enjoyment through staying here' - through thinking thus, the faults of staying in the prison and the benefits of leaving the prison kind of naturally increase. So like this, if we think about the faults of the cycle of existence, the difficulties therein, our yearning for liberation from this cycle of existence will increase naturally; and the stronger our yearning for freedom from the cycle of existence, the stronger our Dharma practice and so our practice of turning away from the cycle of existence, or renunciation (the first of these three points) will become.

The Four Noble Truths

So this reflection on dissatisfaction or suffering cannot be over-emphasised. For example (I forgot to translate from before), when the Buddha first taught the Four Noble Truths in Varanasi, at that time, the first thing he said to his five disciples was 'this is the truth of dissatisfaction' (or 'this is the truth of suffering'). So the reason for saying that initially was to get his disciples to recognise the truth of suffering, or the fact that everything within contaminated existence, that is to say, within the cycle of existence is in and of itself or by its own nature -

[end of side - tape breaks here] …existence and our experience, and through that, through contemplating the Four Noble Truths we can turn away from the cycle of existence. So this is why the teaching of the Four Noble Truths was given initially - in order to jar the disciples into recognising the dissatisfaction inherent in the cycle of existence. So if we then have a quick look at the Four Noble Truths (that is the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation and then the path leading to the cessation); if we emphasise or go a little bit vaster in our explanation of the first truth, that is to say, the truth of suffering, then we will just whizz through the latter three. Through the understanding of the first, this will imply the understanding of the latter three - this can be seen in an example from the text known as 'The Uttaratantra of Maitreya'. In this text it says that the truth of suffering is like the crop, and the cause of suffering is like the seed of that crop, then the cessation is the non-existence of that crop and the path leading to that cessation is the fire which burns the seed which renders it barren and unable to produce its crop. So that is very clear, isn’t it - if we have a crop which we do not want, we need to uproot or prevent the seed of that crop from producing its fruit or its crop, so the way to do that is to make the seed barren and through that it cannot produce or give rise to its fruition, that is to say, the crop. So in the same way then, through recognising the lot, or the 'crop' of dissatisfaction which we have, we can set about burning or removing the causes for that, and the way to do that is through contemplating the cause which will eliminate that result, that is to say, the truth of dissatisfaction, and naturally bring about the truth of cessation.

Three Kinds of Suffering

So with regard to the first noble truth, that is the truth of dissatisfaction, or suffering, with this there are various ways we can divide it - a division into three is presented, four, six, seven and so forth. However as we are only giving an abbreviated commentary, let us just dwell upon the division of suffering into three. Through dwelling upon these three and contemplating them in relation to our experience, we can derive great benefit. So let us go through the division of the truth of suffering into three: that is then the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and the all-pervasive suffering. So with regard the first of this threefold division (the suffering of suffering), this is what everybody understands to be dissatisfaction - whether it be a physical ailment, or whether it be that one is feeling a little bit depressed or a bit tired or a bit run down - these feelings of dissatisfaction, be they physical or mental, are what everybody understands as dissatisfaction or suffering, whether they be a practitioner or not.

The Suffering of Change

The second then is the suffering of change; this is what the majority of people in the world do not want to recognise as dissatisfaction or suffering. The reason for this is because of the way we view pleasurable experiences in the world - we view them as being nothing other than pleasurable experiences, that is to say, only bringing about pleasure, not bringing about the slightest discomfort or dissatisfaction. So if we contemplate this - what is meant by the truth of the suffering of change, we will come to understand how all experiences, when brought about in a contaminated way, that is to say, under the influence of the destructive emotions and karma are all in this nature of dissatisfaction, they do not give any lasting satisfaction. For example if we are in a cold place and we go out into the sunshine - for the first moments we are sitting or lying there in the sun, it seems only to bring bliss and joy to the mind. However, the longer we stay in the sun, what we find is that this joy, this bliss which we achieve from going out of the cold room into the sun, suddenly changes. What happens is that we get very hot, very bothered or flustered, we might get sunburn, and then through this our whole perception of being in a warm place changes - far from being something which has brought us this seemingly inherently existing bliss or joy, it is rather something which has brought us a feeling of dissatisfaction, or a feeling of suffering. So then we might want to reverse this - so we go back into an air-conditioned room, a cool room. When we arrive there, again this feeling of great joy arises in the first moment of entering such a room and it appears as nothing but bliss and joy coming from going into that room or being under that fan. But as time goes on, then we get really, really cold, we start to freeze, and then again, we have to move on to a different place, we have to get out of that room, or turn the fan off, and relieve ourselves of what appeared previously as a self-existing joyful object. We find that we need to remove ourselves from such an object in that it is not producing the joy and happiness which we previously achieved from that.

So then this is what is meant by the suffering of change; momentarily bringing bliss - this is not being denied, however it is not an everlasting bliss which is being brought about through change. The first moment is blissful because you've moved from a cold area into a warm one or from a warm area into a cold one - so it does bring about a kind of happiness, but that happiness is only the happiness of moving from one state into another - it's not a kind of self-existent or autonomously-existent joy that comes from contact with that object; rather it has the nature of change because it is brought about through contaminated action and karma. It is therefore what we call a 'contaminated' experience - contaminated through being brought about by these destructive emotions and karma. So the second moment then, or later on in one's experience of that either warmth or cold, this changes into something other than what it initially was, and through that change, brings about dissatisfaction. So it is this changing nature - changing from a momentary pleasure into something which is quite the opposite of that - which one needs to recognise in all of one's experiences, through which we will come to understand that all of our experience, whether grossly unpleasant or seemingly pleasant, have this nature of dissatisfaction, or not really delivering in the long run.

Another example we could use is if we sit down for a long time it seems very pleasant and then perhaps we get a little bit uncomfortable and we want to move around. When we get up - we stand up and stretch perhaps - we feel great joy at having stood up; but again, this is only the joy which comes about through ending the sitting down, through changing our position. Moving a little bit brings joy to the mind - we perhaps go for a walk and this movement of going for a walk again seems to be self-existing joy that is coming through the object, that is to say, walking. However, the more we walk, the more tired we become, and then eventually we want to sit down - if we are old, perhaps we have bad knees, but even if we are young, we cannot go on walking forever, eventually we become tired and we want to sit down or we want to lay down. So when we sit or when we lay down, again this brings great joy to the mind but this is a joy that is coming from engaging in that particular object, that is to say, sitting down, rather it is just a joy which comes about through plain and simply sitting down - it is not something the contact with which is going to bring everlasting joy. So this is the important point with the suffering of change - to recognise that no experience in and of itself is going to bring about everlasting joy; rather, it is in the nature of contamination, therefore it is eventually going to change into something that is quite the opposite of what we initially perceived it to be.

All-Pervasive Suffering

So then we come to the third of this threefold division, that is the all-pervasive suffering. What is meant by this the all-pervasive suffering? If we talk about the three realms of existence (that is to say, the desire, the form and the formless realm), within the desire realm (within which we find the division of the six different types of individuals), we find that there is the gross suffering of suffering. However through the form and the formless realms we find that there is not this gross suffering but up to and inclusive of the third concentration, we find that there is the suffering or the dissatisfaction, of change, but not in the fourth state of concentration. But without going too deeply into what is meant by these various states of concentration - if we just take the desire, the form and the formless realm - if one is born under the influence of the destructive emotions and karma, that is to say, in a contaminated way, within any of these three realms, then one is bound into the state dissatisfaction and suffering. So what we can understand here then by 'all-pervasive' - 'all' refers to the three realms, and 'pervasive' means that if one is born into these three realms under the influence of the destructive emotions and karma, then one is in the predicament of a contaminated existence, and then through that very nature one's lot is just that of dissatisfaction.

With regard then to this all-pervasive dissatisfaction or suffering - this is brought about through not particularly positive or negative actions but rather through neutral actions, or equanimitous actions. So what is meant here then is that this is not a gross feeling like the feeling of joy or the feeling of dissatisfaction in a manifest way, but rather is a very subtle or latent tendency to undergo such difficulties which is brought about through these karmic seeds of equanimity. So then through having been born under the influence of the destructive emotions and karma in any one of these three realms, one doesn't have any freedom to do what one wishes, that is to say, one is bound by the destructive emotions and karma. As the great master Sakya Pandita said 'freedom is joy, whereas being bound is suffering' (or 'dissatisfaction'). So if we contemplate these words by Sakya Pandita, although few in number, there is a great deal of understanding to be gained. For example we all like the word 'freedom' - if one has freedom, one can do exactly what one wants - one can go where one wants, one can eat what one wants and so forth. If one is under the influence of another, that is to say, bound by another, we have no freedom, we cannot do what we would like - we cannot go where we like, we cannot sit where we would like. This being the case then, it is not a pleasant situation to be in. Through contemplating this, we see that through being bound by the destructive emotions and karma, we do not have the freedom to do exactly what we want. Surely then we should turn our attention towards removing these fetters, or bonds, and then giving ourselves the freedom to do exactly what we would like to do. So it's good to contemplate those words of that particular master with regard to the various different kinds of suffering which we've gone through.

Four Wrong Views

So as practitioners, we should strive to understand this all-pervasive suffering. In essence we can say that the all-pervasive suffering comes about just through having contaminated aggregates ('contaminated' here referring to being under the control of the destructive emotions and under the control of the karma issuing therefrom). With regard then to the first of the Four Noble Truths of suffering, there are what is known as four aspects, or four different parts to that particular truth of suffering. With regard to the whole of the Four Noble Truths and with regard to each of the truths, they each have four different aspects; here we are just going to go through the four aspects with regard to the truth of suffering. So within this truth of suffering, we find that there are four wrong views which ordinary beings perceive and then through this perception we undergo various forms of dissatisfaction, or suffering. These four wrong views are - perceiving dissatisfaction as satisfaction; grasping onto what is impermanent as permanent; grasping onto something of a dirty nature as being clean; and then grasping onto an inherently existent self or I where such a self-existent self or I does not exist. Then through contemplating these four aspects of this first truth, we can reverse our attachment towards the truth of suffering, that is to say, we can turn our mind away from the cycle of existence.

So then if we put these four into syllogisms, then we can really clearly see how our aggregates, that is to say, our body and mind in this contaminated state are in the nature of dissatisfaction or suffering, and through this we can come to understand that wherever we are born in this state (ie a contaminated state) within any of the realms of existence, we are going to have dissatisfaction, and nothing other than that, as our lot. So with regard to the second one if we go through this first, we can say that the subject, which is our aggregates, are not something which is permanent ie they are something which is impermanent because they come about through relying upon causes and conditions; in an ordinary sense, as they rely on something else to come into existence, they cannot exist permanently, therefore they must be something other than that and the only opposite of that is something that is impermanent. Therefore our aggregates, our contaminated mind, are something that is impermanent because of being brought about through causes and conditions. Then with regard to the first of these four aspects, the subject - again, our aggregates, contaminated body and mind - are something which is in the nature of dissatisfaction because they have no freedom. And so again we can see - we are under the influence of the destructive emotions and karma, and through being bound by destructive emotions and karma, we have no freedom to do what we would like to do in our existence. Therefore the second syllogism is the subject - one's aggregates - is in the nature of dissatisfaction through being under the influence and control of the destructive emotions and karma. Then with regard to the third, again the subject is the same - viewing our contaminated aggregates - then seeing them in the nature of something which is undesirable or dirty. Then through contemplating the nature of those particular objects, we can come to this realisation and understanding. And then lastly (this is the most important one) the subject - again, the contaminated objects of body and mind - are something which is empty of a self-existence or autonomous existence because a naturally existing, or existing from its own side, self is not something which exists, ie it is completely fictitious.

So here then through this contemplation, what we come to find is that within all the different schools there are presentations of this selflessness, or this lack of an inherently existing self. So through all the different schools we can gain a greater picture of what is meant by an inherently existent self, and what the lack of that means; but in essence, and what every philosophical school agrees upon, is that this self-existent self or this autonomous I is something which cannot exist in and of itself, therefore the subject (our contaminated body and mind) lacks an inherently existing self because such an inherently or autonomously existing self is not something which exists. So these then are the four aspects of this first truth (that is the truth of suffering) and by contemplating the faults of grasping onto something as joyful which is in the nature of suffering, grasping at something as permanent which is actually in the nature of impermanence, grasping at something as clean which is actually in the nature of being dirty, and grasping at something as inherently existent, when in actual fact, it doesn't exist in such a way - through contemplating the faults of those four false views, we can reverse them and through reversing them we can put a stop to the first of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering.

Fully Qualified Renunciation

So going back to our root text we read:

Leisure and opportunity are difficult to find,
there is no time to waste.
Reverse attraction to this life, reverse attraction to future lives,
think repeatedly of the infallible effects of karma and the misery of this world.

So we have just gone through the misery of this world (this can also be translated as 'samsara', or 'the cycle of contaminated existence'), and then through the contemplations we have just gone through we can slowly begin to turn our minds away from this life and put them towards thinking about future lives, and then finally, turn our attention away from our future lives and think more of achieving liberation from the cycle of existence. So through our contemplations on the misery of the world (as it is translated here) what is the sign that we have actually generated the mind striving for liberation? So we read the next stanza:

Contemplating this,
when you do not for an instant wish for the pleasures of samsara,
and day and night remain intent on liberation,
you have then produced renunciation.

So here then through contemplating the truth of suffering, and then 'when you do not wish for an instant the pleasures of samsara'. So here it's important to understand what is meant by 'do not for an instant wish for the pleasures of samsara'. What we can undergo is a strong feeling of renunciation and wishing to be free from the cycle of existence, and then in the next moment we want to do something which is very much within the cycle of existence, or very much concerned with the pleasure of cyclic existence, or samsara. So this is a sign that we haven't gained the fully qualified wish to achieve renunciation, or the fully qualified wish to achieve liberation from the cycle of existence. The next two lines read 'and day and night remain intent on liberation, you have then produced renunciation'. So when we are continually thinking of achieving liberation from the cycle of existence, it is at that moment that we have generated the fully qualified renunciation; at any time during a twenty-four period, we are always concerned with liberation from the cycle of existence - it's at that point we have generated the fully qualified renunciation. As is mentioned in the Letter to a Friend, we should be like a person whose hair has caught fire; if a person's hair has caught alight, whatever they are doing - whether it be important work or some kind of hobby - that all gets thrown to one side, and one's whole attention and one's whole time and action is concerned only with one thing, that is putting out the fire on one's head. So in the same way, we should have renunciation like that, within which all other work apart from work which is going to lead us out of the cycle of existence can be easily left aside, and we remain single-pointed and steadfast in our attitude of striving for liberation from the vicious cycle of existence. So it is at that point that the fully qualified mind - wishing to go forth from the cycle of existence, or renunciation, has been developed in our being, or mind.

Bodhi-Mind

The next stanza then reads:

Renunciation without the pure bodhi-mind does not bring forth
the perfect bliss of unsurpassed enlightenment.
Therefore the wise generate the excellent bodhi-mind.

So here, even if one has generated the fully qualified renunciation (that is to say, wishing to escape from the vicious cycle of existence), if one doesn't contemplate the dissatisfaction of others, one's kind mother sentient beings, then no matter how much renunciation one has, this is not going to bring about the state of having abandoned the most subtle abandonments, and having gathered together all the most excellent qualities, that is to say, the state of buddhahood, or unsurpassed enlightenment. Therefore the wise, seeing that being without the bodhi mind (that is to say, bodhicitta) is not going to bring about this state of unsurpassed or highest enlightenment, strive to generate within their existence, or within their mind, this wish to achieve buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings, this mind of bodhicitta.

So then in order to achieve the state of buddhahood, or unsurpassed enlightenment, one needs two factors - method and wisdom. So as is quoted in the sutras, method without wisdom is bondage and wisdom without message is again, bondage. So what this tells is that we cannot achieve buddhahood through just one, either wisdom or method - we need both of them in union to achieve unsurpassed enlightenment. This is also echoed in Chandrakirti's book The Entrance to the Middle Way where he gives the analogy of the crane - so when a crane flies through the sky, he does so in dependence on both wings; if there is a fault with either of the wings, then the crane will not be able to fly from the east to the west or wherever. So in the same way, in order for the crane-like individual to 'fly' to the state of omniscience, one needs both 'wings' of method and wisdom unified together in one practice.

This is again mentioned in the Abhisaymamalankara where it says that the final, or ultimate, peace is brought about not through just contemplation on the nature of existence (that is to say, on selflessness), but rather is brought about through a dual practice of wisdom and method. We can here see a fault in those foe-destroyers of the hearer lineage in that they practise fully qualified renunciation and in addition to that meditate single-pointedly upon selflessness or suchness, and through that they achieve a lesser state of emancipation, or lesser nirvana. So then as we are not striving for this lesser nirvana but rather for a higher nirvana, we need to add something else to our practice, and this additional practice which we need to utilise is this mind of great compassion or 'the great lord of the minds'. This practice, in dependence upon which the welfare for all sentient beings is brought about, can thus take us to the end of the path of peace, that is to say, to the highest state of enlightenment. And if we look at the resultant state, then the various emanation bodies which come forth through the Buddha's activities, again, these solely come about through familiarisation with this mind striving to bring about benefit for others, the great mind which strives to remove others' pain or this great mind of bodhicitta. In this resultant stage, the Buddha can emanate various emanations for the benefit of others; so this is a result of training oneself in the bodhi mind.

So then we need to generate this bodhi mind. So there is a quote from the Mahayana sutra Alankara which says: ...[end of side - tape breaks here]

…colours and lights going here and there, we think 'oh, that is a nice, magical being, I want to become just like that magical individual'. So this is not the bodhi mind, the correct attitude for achieving full enlightenment, rather, this is just a selfish wish to become something rather odd! However, as individuals striving for buddhahood we need to have two qualities. The first quality is viewing all sentient beings with a mind of great compassion, wishing to free them from the predicament of suffering in which they find themselves, and it is said that the stronger one's compassion, the easier it is to bring about this bodhi mind. So the first cause, or first necessity, is bringing about this bodhi mind. The second one is a mind which is bent on achieving full enlightenment to be of maximum use to other sentient beings. So one needs to have these two contemplations together in order to achieve buddahood, these are the two crucial points which one must have - the mind wishing to liberate sentient beings from their suffering, and then a mind which is determined to achieve full enlightenment in order to bring this about in the best possible way.

The Predicament of Sentient Beings

In order to bring about this feeling of wishing to liberate sentient beings from their predicament, or their lot, of suffering, then we need to understand what is meant by their dissatisfaction or suffering. Then the next line of our root text reads:

Swept by the current of the four powerful rivers,
tied by strong bonds of karma so hard to undo,
caught in the iron net of self-grasping,
completely enveloped by the darkness of ignorance.

So here then if we use the first analogy 'swept by the current of the four powerful rivers'. So if we use this imagery of four really strong rivers flowing very fast, then caught within the combination of those four rivers. Here the 'four rivers' are four factors which hold sentient beings in the state of dissatisfaction, or suffering. So these are desire, views (wrong views), existence in and of itself, and then ignorance. So if we look at these four - ignorance is the initial cause of all the other destructive emotions. So it is said the first moment is ignorance - conceiving something in a wrong way - and that confusion brings about all the other destructive emotions and thereafter all the actions that are entered into through the force of those wrong thoughts and then thereafter the various karmic results of those actions. As for desire then, there are various kinds of desire - there is the strong desire which makes one's mind change from something peaceful to something which is completely intent on one object, there is the desire of carefully planning how to gain an object which one wants and so forth. Then with regard to the various views, what is meant here by 'view' is wrong view. Wrong view here can be divided into five, such as the general wrong mind, or wrong consciousness, and so forth. Then with regard the third, existence in and of itself - here, what is meant by existence can also refer to the cycle of existence, or samsara, and can also refer to karmic actions in the dormant and also in their fully ripened states. So those four rivers combined as one are what is carrying our kind mother sentient beings along. So if we imagine somebody who has fallen into a fast-flowing river or fallen into the rapids - if they are able to shout for help then that is one thing, and if they are able to swim then there is every possibility that they will be able to reach the banks of the river and get out of this fast moving current.

However, this is not the case because as the next line of the root text tells us - 'tied by strong bonds of karma so hard to undo'. So not only are these kind mother sentient beings swept along in this rapid, but in addition, their hands and feet are tied up, they are completely bound up with very tough ropes and cannot possibly move. And you would think then that even if this is the case they might be able to get out of these bonds by contortion or suchlike, but this again is not the case because in addition to being bound, (as the third line reads) they are 'caught in the iron net of self-grasping'. So here 'iron net' can also be translated as 'cage'. So not only is one bobbing along completely bound by the strong bonds of karma, but one is also wrapped in this chain-mail of self-grasping. And you would think then that as this is the case, if one was fortunate enough to come into contact with a fisherman sitting on the riverbank, by calling out to him, if he is a kind-hearted individual, he might throw us a line or try to hook us out. However, this is again not the case because as the fourth line reads - 'completely enveloped by the darkness of ignorance'. So if we look at this example - someone has been throw into a rapid, is being swept along by this powerfully moving water, not only are they bound up but they are wrapped in chain-mail and it is the middle of the night, so there is no chance even to come into contact with somebody on the riverbank who one could call to and request assistance because it's in the middle of the night, it's very dark, and nobody goes to the riverbank at that time. So in the same way there are the four powerful rivers which we have just gone through (the four causes of the cycle of existence), then fettered by bonds of karma, wrapped in this chain-mail of self-grasping, completely enveloped in the darkness of ignorance - that is the pitiful state of one's kind mother / father sentient beings.

Physical and Mental Suffering

So as is mentioned in Aryadeva's book The Four Hundred Verses, the aristocrats are beset with mental suffering whereas the ordinary person is beset with physical suffering. Whatever kind of suffering one is engaged in, one should daily try to put an end to such suffering. So here then we can divide dissatisfaction grossly into two, that is to say, dissatisfaction, or suffering which is physical and then that which is mental. Then those kind of aristocrats, those who have very fine jobs, they are individuals who do not suffer so much physically - they have nice places to live, nice food to eat and so forth; however they have a lot of mental torment - thinking about the various businesses which they are involved in, the various meetings they have to go to and so forth - that is their lot of suffering. Whereas for an ordinary working person there is not so much mental worry about rushing to meetings, buying and selling stocks and so forth, but there is physical suffering in that one has to work for one's living so therefore one engages in various strenuous activities. This is not something which is easily seen in the West, but in India if you look around building sites there are no cranes or lifting devices - bricks are carried by the local people stacked high on the head and the cement is carried on the back by the coolies and so forth. So if you see the very low-paid, low caste people in India you will see that they go through immense physical difficulty, but when they sit down there is not so much mental dissatisfaction or suffering, but rather their lot is that of physical difficulty. Then as the text goes on to say, whatever kind of suffering it is - whether mental or physical, one should daily engage in a practice which is going to bring about the thorough removal of that dissatisfaction.

So using that quote from The Four Hundred Verses then, a person who has wealth when viewing how poorer people live might think 'living such an aristocratic life is not all it's cracked up to be - living in the open, living a pauper's life is something that is quite delightful. I think I'm going to give up everything and go and live as a pauper!' And then the paupers, or the working people, when viewing the aristocrats, or the wealthy individuals, think 'oh, we have such a hard time - all this work we have to do but those guys are just sitting around, they have nice food to eat, servants to wait upon them, nice comfortable beds and so forth. How great it would be to achieve such a status!' However, if we look at that with a vaster view, we see that both kinds of individuals are undergoing dissatisfaction, and the dissatisfaction which they are undergoing is same in essence but different in aspect; different in aspect in the sense that for a poorer individual it is physical but for a wealthy individual it's mental. But the contaminated actions which have brought about their very existence are ones within which one can never find any permanent peace; rather as we mentioned earlier, the first moment can be somewhat peaceful or joyful, but then as soon as that is over with, the experience changes into something other than what it initially was. So viewing the cycle of existence, or samsara, as the product of contaminated actions, contaminated destructive emotions and so forth, then we should strive to put an end to all dissatisfaction and the causes of that dissatisfaction, not just one particular kind of those various kinds of dissatisfaction. We should strive to abandon the whole of the cycle of existence, and this is echoed in the prayer to the lineage gurus of the Lam-rim genre of teachings by Tsongkhapa when he says that one should strive to abandon the cycle of its existence through seeing its faults, through seeing how it is impermanent and through seeing how it is not something that is very stable.

A commentary on Lama Tsongkhapa's text which covers the entire Buddhist path to enlightenment.

By Denma Lochö Rinpoche in London, England 2001

A teaching on The Three Principal Aspects of the path by Ven. Denma Lochö Rinpoche at  Jamyang Buddhist Centre, London, in early October 2001.

The Three Principal Aspects of the Path is a text by Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) which covers the entire Buddhist path to enlightenment.

CHAPTERS
Part 1: Renunciation
Part 2: Renunciation
Part 3: Bodhicitta
Part 4: Correct View of Emptiness

Part 1: Renunciation

Motivation

So when we begin the teaching with the prayer of going for refuge and then the aspiration to the highest enlightenment, that is to say, buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings, then we recite the four-line prayer as we have just done. So within that, as you know, we should recite, 'through the merit I receive by engaging in listening to this teaching, may I achieve buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings'. The lama who is giving the discourse recites 'through the merit I achieve through explaining the Dharma'. So as we, the disciples, are not explaining the Dharma, then we needn't recite this, so we should recite 'through the merit I receive through listening to this teaching, may I achieve buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings'.

So one of the most important things before receiving a Dharma teaching is one's motivation for receiving the teaching. So our motivation should be one that is in accordance with the Dharma, that is to say, in accordance with the Three Jewels. So what should our motivation be? Most of us already know, but it's good to go over that. One should listen to the teaching with the thought 'I must achieve the highest unsurpassable enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings in order to lead them out of the state of dissatisfaction into one of everlasting satisfaction'. So with this motivation one should then listen to the teachings, not rather with the motivation to gain fame or renown or some kind of strange blessings; rather one should adjust one's motivation or attitude to one of achieving the highest enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.

The Benefits of Listening to the Dharma

So with regard to this attitude or motivation for receiving the teaching - initially if we understand the benefits of listening to the teaching, of receiving the Dharma discourses, then we will willingly engage in the practice of hearing the teaching, or delight in hearing the teaching. So then we should understand this through an example: If we are engaging in some kind of worldly work, for example a business, if we understand the benefits of engaging in a certain business deal, then we will put a lot of effort into that business deal, we won't have a two-pointed mind, that is to say, we won't have doubt with regard to that deal because we will have firstly seen the benefits, understood the actual deal itself and then engaged in that action. So in the same way when engaging in the practice of Buddhism, then initially one should understand the benefits of engaging in the Dharma practice.

So this is understood through understanding a quotation from a book which talks about the benefits of hearing the Dharma. So within this text then it first instructs that we should delight in the practice of hearing the Dharma because through this all qualities arise. So what is meant by this is that through engaging in the three higher trainings, we achieve the state of liberation; whether we are engaging in a lesser vehicle practice or in a greater vehicle practice, we achieve the result which is the state of liberation. Of those three higher trainings, the most important is the one of wisdom. So with regard to this wisdom which is crucial at the base and path and resultant level of the path, then how does this come about, how do we generate this wisdom within our mind, or within our being? We generate this through initially hearing a teaching about wisdom and then engaging in that particular practice. So initially then, the benefits that come about through engaging in the three higher trainings - the state of liberation and so forth - all come about through initially hearing the Dharma teaching.

Then the second line from that text goes on to say that through listening, negativity, or non-virtue, is reversed. So what this means is that through hearing the teaching, we understand what is virtuous to take up and what is non-virtuous and thus what are the objects to be abandoned. So this is principally talking about the higher training of morality. So here then if we talk about restraint - what is meant by 'restraint' here is the subduing of negative actions or negative states of mind. So this again is something that is learned through hearing the teaching. So through hearing the teaching we understand what is meant by a negative action and how to refrain from that particular action - we understand what is the base, what is the motivating factor, what is the intention with regard to the particular action or the particular karmic deed which we are going to perform and then what is meant by the rejoicing in that action afterwards. So then if we don't understand this fourfold mode of action, then we can easily engage in negative actions, and then the ripening result of those, or the negative result of those, which will inevitably come will just be something that causes us displeasure later on.

For example, if we have not heard the Dharma teaching about the necessity of abandoning the negative action of stealing, we might engage in the practice of stealing, through borrowing something and not returning it, or we might engage in the practice of killing through being pestered by an insect, and through this we will inevitably receive the result of such actions. If we don't want to have such unpleasant karmic results, we need to know what actions to abandon, and the only way we are going to understand what actions are to be abandoned is through hearing the Dharma teachings. So again here then, the praise of listening to the Dharma teaching is that one will know exactly what negative actions to reverse and this is only understood through initially engaging in the practice of hearing a teaching upon that.

So then the third line talks about the higher training of concentration. So if we talk about the mind of calm abiding, or shamatha, then this mind is one which spontaneously and effortlessly remains single-pointedly upon its object of observation. So let's talk about the achieving of that state of mind - what does one need to initially engage in? One needs to initially understand what is meant by the object of observation, the object upon which we are going to generate this single-pointed mind, this single-pointed concentration. Then we need to understand what are the beneficial mental factors which we need to take up, for example faith in the practice, introspection and so forth. Then we also need to know the objects of abandonment which are abandoned by these positive attitudes, for example mental sinking, laxity and so forth. So when we understand what is to be taken up and what is to be abandoned on this path of achieving this single-pointed mind of concentration, we will be able to engage in this particular practice of achieving a mind of calm-abiding. So again, we only know what objects are to be taken up and what objects are to be abandoned (in this case, mind-states) through engaging in the practice of hearing the teaching about this particular mind-state, or the mind of calm abiding.

Then the last line says that in essence one achieves the state of liberation through hearing the teaching. So here when we talk about having engaged in the practice of the three higher trainings, the natural result of that is to achieve the state of liberation. If we look for the root cause of achieving the state of liberation, we will find that it is hearing the teaching. So initially when one engages in the practice of hearing the teaching, then generating the various wisdoms which arise form hearing, and then contemplating the teaching, and then meditating single-pointedly on the teaching, then through having done that one generates the yogic direct perception of suchness, and then through single-pointed placement on that, one goes through the various stages and paths and achieves then the state of omniscience. So all good qualities arise through initially engaging in the practice of hearing the teaching, thus hearing the teaching is incredibly important.

The Root Text

So after having gone through the benefits of listening to the Dharma, we should engage in the practice of listening to the Dharma teaching. So the Dharma teaching which we are going to receive today is known as The Three Principals of the Path. So when we talk hear about 'path', what is meant by 'path'? In general we can talk about various kinds of path, for example, a road or a rail-track, something which gets us from A to B. However in this instance, we are not talking about a worldly path, we are rather talking about a spiritual path, and what is meant here by a spiritual path is one which gets us from a spiritual A to B, travelling through the various stages, based upon the oral instructions of the past masters, the present masters, and then taking those instructions to heart, putting them into practice, and through that moving through various stages of spiritual evolution. Here 'principal' then refers to the main points of the path, like for example snatching the essence from what is known as the Lam-rim (or the graduated stages of the path to enlightenment) teachings. So when we talk of these 'three principals of the path', we talk about a person of smaller, middling and greater capacities and then the practices which are in common with a person of smaller, middling and then the pinnacle practice which is unique to a person of greater capacity. So within that division of three, what we find are various divisions and sub-divisions, but the essence is all kind of snatched together and put in these three principals of the path, which we are going to go through.

So this particular text was composed by Lama Tsongkhapa and it was something which he received while in communication, if you like, with Manjushri, and it is the heart-essence of his practice and also of the Lam-rim genre of texts. So this was requested by a disciple of his who lived in a place called Gameron which is on the Chinese-Tibetan border. This monk requested him to give him some inspiring word for his practice, and then Lama Tsongkhapa wrote this to him based on the teachings he had received in the pure vision, thus we have the written form of The Three Principals of the Path.

The Three Principals

So if you ask – ‘what are these three principals of the path?’ Initially then it’s renunciation. So 'renunciation' here refers to a turning away from the faults of the cycle of existence and yearning or directing one’s spiritual career towards liberation from such a state of existence. Then the second is the mind of bodhicitta. This refers to a mind which for the benefit of all sentient beings, through seeing sentient beings’ suffering, strives to achieve the highest state of enlightenment in order to be of maximum or optimum benefit. So through seeing the faults in one’s state of mind, through abandoning those, gathering all the qualities, achieving the mind of omniscience of the Buddha - this desire to achieve such a state - the mind of bodhicitta - is the second of the three. Then the third of the three is what is known as the 'correct view', also known as 'wisdom'. 'Wisdom' here then refers to the mode of abiding of phenomena, that is to say the middle way view - 'middle way' here being a middle way between the two extremes of annihilation and permanence. So this correct view of reality then is the third of the three principal aspects of the path.

Prostration

So then initially we have the prostration and then the promise to compose the text. So initially then we have the first line of the text:

I bow down to the venerable lamas.

So then we should understand what is meant by this prostration - who is the object towards which the author is making this prostration? It is the field of merit, that is to say, the field upon which the prostrator, or the one making the supplication, receives the maximum amount of merit, that is to say, one's spiritual mentor, or one's lama. So here then the prostration is made to the venerable lamas. So here then we should understand what is meant by 'venerable lamas' by looking at the Tibetan word. If we look at the etymology of [Tib] - the first part [Tib] refers to the lama having heard a lot of teaching, that is to say, the lama is very knowledgeable about the Buddhist practice. Then the second part of that word [Tib] refers to not only having heard the teaching but then has accomplished, or has gained realisation of, that teaching through putting it into practice in a faultless fashion. So this then refers to the level of realisation of the lama. So here then [Tib] together refer to the lama's knowledge and then the realisation of that knowledge. Then the third word 'lama' - if we look at the meaning of this word, what we find is that it refers to the highest, or that of which there is none higher. So then this is the name given to one's spiritual master with whom there is none higher with regard to the knowledge of the teaching and the realisation of that teaching. So thus we have [Tib]. In Tibetan, there is the plural [Tib] - so [Tib] here refers to the various lamas of the various lineages, that is to say, of the profound lineage, of the vast lineage, there are many what we call 'lineage lamas'. So through saying 'I bow down to the venerable lamas' - using the plural, the author is showing his willingness to bow down before all the lamas of the lineage and in particular then his principal teachers.

The Promise to Compose the Text

So then we have now reached the first stanza which is the promise of composition, so I will read from the root text:

I will explain as well as I am able
the essence of all the teachings of the Conqueror,
the path praised by the Conqueror's offspring,
the entrance for the fortunate ones who desire liberation.

So here when we talk about 'the teachings of the Conqueror', the 'Conqueror' here then refers to the Fully Enlightened One, the Buddha, and then 'the essence of the teachings' here - whether it be the various sutras or the various teachings of the Secret Mantra and the fourfold division therein, the essential part of all of this is what is going to be explained. So here then we have to understand what is meant by the teaching of the Buddha. It wasn't that the Buddha just gave a teaching and then everybody had to follow that teaching. Rather, as is mentioned by Nagarjuna in the 'Precious Garland', the Buddha teaches as a grammarian instructs his pupils. That is to say, a grammarian doesn't just teach advanced grammar to... [end of side - tape breaks here]

Renunciation

…initially then one would learn the alphabet, so you would learn the basic Tibetan grammar like [Tib], or in English 'A, B, C', then in dependence upon that you would learn how to form words and then sentences and then advance up into advanced grammar and so forth. So the Buddha taught his disciples in much the same way, that is to say, in a method which would lead them along a path. So 'path' here then is referring initially to renunciation. So there are two kinds of renunciation which are mentioned - one is to turn one's attention away from this life in and of itself and towards one's future lives; then to turn one's mind even away from future lives and put one's mind in a state where one wishes to achieve liberation from the cycle of existence. So thus then there is turning away from this life and then turning away from future lives, thus two kinds of turning away, and these are taught in stages to the aspiring disciples. In essence, we can say that the Buddhist teachings are taught as a method to subdue one's unruly mind, to subdue the destructive emotions which we find therein, and then to develop the spiritual qualities on top of that. So this is what is meant by 'the essence of all the teachings of the Conqueror', and here 'Conqueror' refers to having conquered all others, thus the Fully Enlightened One.

Bodhicitta

So then the second line of The Three Principal Teachings of the Path (which is the first in Tibetan) talks about the practice of renunciation. The third in English (and the second in Tibetan) - 'the path praised by the Conqueror's offspring'. So here then let us have a look at the word 'Conqueror's offspring'. Here then if we read from the Tibetan it says the holy Conqueror's offspring, or the exalted Conqueror's offspring. So this word 'exalted' means that a person in whose mental continuum, or mind, the wish to achieve full awakening for the benefit of all sentient beings has arisen, becomes a superior individual, thus kind of a holy individual. At that moment of generating the mind aspiring to the highest enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, a lot of negative karma is destroyed, and that person then becomes what is known as one of the 'Conqueror's offspring', or the son or daughter of the Victorious One. This is mentioned quite clearly in Shantideva's book called The Bodhicaryavatara where it says that just through having given rise to this, no matter what caste one is born to, one becomes renowned as the son or the daughter of the Victorious One. So no matter what caste or what colour one might be, one is equal in the sense that one will be equally regarded, through having given rise to this mind, as the offspring of the Victorious One. This mind then is one is which is extremely important and its importance cannot be overestimated because through this mind one achieves the state of buddhahood, and if one doesn't have this mind, if one hasn’t given rise to this thought, then no matter what practice one engages in, one will not come any closer to the state of omniscience.

Correct View

Then the next line reads 'the entrance for the fortunate ones who desire liberation'. So 'fortunate ones' here then refers to those who are engaging in the Buddhist practice - fortunate in the sense that we have become into contact with the Buddha's teaching and are able to put them into practice, and in particular, fortunate in the sense that we have come into contact with the teaching of the greater vehicle, or the Mahayana teaching. So this sentence is describing the third of the three principals of the path which is correct view, correct view of reality. Because as the line says, 'the entrance for the fortunate ones who desire liberation'.

So here then 'desire liberation' - what is meant by 'liberation' and how does this sentence teach us about the correct view of reality? Here we have to understand what is meant by 'liberation'. So liberation then refers to a kind of release or an escape. So if there is a release, something has to loosen so we can escape from it, or if there is an escape there has to be something from which we are going to escape. So here then what we are escaping from or loosening and then getting away from is the destructive emotions, and then action, or karma. So these are the two fetters which bind us to the wheel, or cycle, of existence. So it is only through removing ourselves from the destructive emotions and action that one is able to achieve liberation.

So then if we think about what the cause of the destructive emotions and karma is, we can say that the root of the causes of cyclic existence (that is to say, of the destructive emotions and then the action which is brought about through them) is grasping at a truly existent or self-existent self or 'I'. So then if one wants to reverse this root, one needs to understand how this root is baseless, that is to say, we need to understand how phenomena actually exist and how, perceiving them in a wrong way, we develop these destructive emotions and then through having brought about these destructive emotions, we engage in action, the result of which is the wheel of existence, that is to say, the state of dissatisfaction. If we look at action and destructive emotions in and of themselves, then we find that the strongest of the two is the destructive emotions. If we look at the destructive emotions, then we find in the various college text books that there are two kinds, that is to say, the root and then the secondary destructive emotions, but whether it be root or secondary, these destructive emotions are emotions which cause us to have an unpeaceful or disturbed mind. So those states of mind are those which we are seeking to abandon through uprooting the root of those destructive emotions, that is to say, wrong view. So that which is going to uproot the wrong view is the correct view which is taught here in the third line - 'the entrance for the fortunate ones who desire liberation'. 'Entrance' here then referring to the path which one has to engage in if one wants to achieve liberation, that is, the removal of the destructive emotions and the actions which come about through that.

Then the last line in the Tibetan which is the first in English is 'I will explain as well as I am able'. So through this we see that Je Rinpoche was a very humble individual. He in fact was an incredibly learned person, so he could easily have written 'I am going to explain the subject matter better than others or in a different way to others' but rather than that he wrote 'I will explain as much as I can, as well as I am able', then he went on to give the rest of the verse. So this clearly shows that Lama Tsongkhapa himself was a very humble individual who always took a low status.

The Cycle of Existence

So that concludes the promise to compose the text. The next stanza is a request to listen well to the teaching which is to follow. So in English it reads:

'Listen with clear minds you fortunate ones
who direct your minds to the path pleasing to the Buddha,
who strive to make good use of leisure and opportunity
and are not attached to the joys of samsara.'

'Not attached to the joys of samsara' here refers to having turned away from the pleasures in which one may indulge in the wheel of existence, that is to say, samsara. So having gained precious human existence which is adorned with leisure and opportunity, then engaging with effort in the practice of the path, then to make use of this human opportunity which we now have in our hands by directing our minds to the path which is pleasing to the Buddha. Here 'pleasing to the Buddha' means the path of the greater vehicle, that is to say, having engaged with effort in the practice of generating the mind aspiring to highest enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, and then engaging single-pointedly in that practice, thus the path which is pleasing to the Buddha. Then for the disciples listening to the discourse then - 'listen with clear minds you fortunate ones' - 'fortunate' in the sense of having come into contact with this particular teaching and then engaging in the practice thereafter.

So then the next stanza of the text reads:

Those with bodies are bound by the craving for existence;
without pure renunciation there is no way
to still attraction to the pleasures of samsara.
Thus from the outset, seek renunciation.'

So this stanza then teaches us that initially one should strive to generate a mind which is turned away from the world, that is to say, a mind which is free from seeking the pleasures of the cycle of existence, so one's attraction to those fetters have been reversed and thus one is striving in the opposite direction, that is to say, striving to achieve release from the cycle of existence. If one initially doesn't seek release from the cycle of existence, one isn't going to be able to get out of the cycle of existence, one isn't going to find any release from the cycle of existence within that. So initially one should seek renunciation from that cycle of existence. So as the text tells us, 'without pure renunciation, there is no way to still attraction to the pleasures of samsara', thus one will not be able to turn away from the pleasures of samsara, therefore one will still be trapped within that. So the first line reads 'those with bodies are bound by the craving for existence' - 'those whose bodies' then refers in particular to human beings who are bound by this craving for existence. So this craving is one which has to be reversed before one can really start out on the path of liberation.

Contemplation on the Preciousness of Human Existence

So then the next stanza reads:

Leisure and opportunity are difficult to find;
there us no time to waste.
Reverse attraction to this life, reverse attraction to future lives.
Think repeatedly of the infallible effects of karma
and the misery of this world.

So here then we are taught about renunciation, renunciation away from initially this life and then subsequently from future lives, so two kinds of renunciation are thus taught. So with regard to the first practice of turning one's mind from this life, one can bring about this change in one's attitude through reflecting on the preciousness of human existence, precious human rebirth, and then through the impermanence of human life. So through these kind of contemplations and the contemplation of action (cause and effect), one can turn one's mind away from the pleasures of this life and bring to mind the future lives which are yet to come. So the basis on which we can do this kind of contemplation is our human existence, that is to say our precious human rebirth which we now possess, a life of leisure and opportunity, which the text then tells us are difficult to find.

So if we want to quote, for example, from Lama Tsongkhapa's works, then we read that this human existence is more precious than a wish-fulfilling gem. So how is it more precious than that gem? In the worldly sense, if we have a wish-fulfilling gem, if we polish it, and put it atop a pole then whatever prayers we make to this wish-fulfilling gem are instantly fulfilled, through which we can have all the riches and enjoyments in one lifetime. But with regard to future lifetimes, there is nothing we can take with us. It is only in dependence upon this kind of human existence which we have now that we can put ourselves in a position where we will achieve the status of human being or god in the future, or if we so wish, the various kinds of liberation, that is to say, the greater and the lesser vehicle liberations from the cycle of existence. This can all be brought about only through dependence upon the support of precious human existence which is more precious than the wish-fulfilling gem in that we can fulfil our future aims through and in dependence upon this precious human existence.

Then it says that this human existence is something which is difficult to find. So here then we should understand why it is difficult of find, and this we can understand through two key points, that is to say, difficult to find because its cause is difficult, and through an example. So initially then through an example: In the sutras we read that the Buddha was once asked 'What is the difference between beings in the higher realms and those in the lower realms?' So to answer this the Buddha put his finger in the earth and said 'the amount of dust which I have on my fingertip symbolises those beings in the pleasurable states, or the states of bliss, whereas all the other grains of sand and dust which are on the face of the earth resemble those who are in the unfortunate states, or the states of suffering and misery'. So through that example we can see that having an existence which is within this fingertip of dust, that is to say, in the realms of bliss, or the higher realms, is something extremely difficult to achieve, whereas if we look all around us it's impossible even to count the amount of dust one might come into contact with in the street, something which is completely uncountable.

Then with regard to the cause, the cause is principally to guard ethical behaviour. So this is the root cause and this needs to be supplemented with the practice of the six perfections and complemented by stainless prayers. So we might think that if we don't keep virtuous or ethical behaviour but rather engage in the practice of the six perfections we may achieve some higher existence as a human, but as Nagarjuna mentions in his book, what we find is that wealth comes about through the practice of the perfection of giving, while the states of bliss (that is to say, the higher realms of existence humans, gods and so forth) come about through engaging in the practice of ethical conduct. This is commented upon by Chandrakirti in his book Entrance to the Middle Way when he says that through engaging in the practice of generosity, it doesn't necessarily follow that one will be reborn in the states of bliss (that is to say, in the higher states of existence), because even if one engages in the practice of giving, if one doesn’t protect one's ethical behaviour one may be reborn as a spirit which is quite wealthy or, for example, a snake spirit, a naga spirit, which is well-renowned for having plentiful jewels. Having wealth or jewels in that instance comes about through engaging in the practice of generosity; however, that individual hasn't engaged correctly in the practice of the protection of morality, therefore hasn't achieved the status of humans or gods (that is to say the realms of bliss) through the very fact of not protecting the cause, that is, ethical behaviour. So through contemplating these things we can come to see how the precious human existence which we now have in our hands is something which is not only more useful than a wish-fulfilling gem, but is also something which is incredibly difficult to come by.

Contemplation on Death

So then through these contemplations of one's precious human existence, one abandons all non-beneficial action. Then through contemplating how difficult it is to find such a human existence, one will seek out what will take the essence of this precious human existence, that is to say, one will put a lot of effort into engaging in the practice of the Dharma through seeing that one has in one's hands the incredible opportunity to make use of this life, and then the preciousness of one's life won't be carried off by the thief of laziness. So here we have to understand that this precious human life which we have is not something which is going to last forever - at some point there is going to be the separation of the mind and the body.

So when we talk about having a life-force within us, this life-force is basically referring to one's physical body and one's mind being joined together, so that when this joining of these two aggregates is broken, this is what is known as 'death', or the separation of the life-force. So when this occurs, one's physical form remains and is buried or whatever and then aggregate of consciousness goes on to one's future existence. So this is what is meant by 'death', and this is something which is definitely going to happen to all of us.

Now death is something which is definitely going to happen to all of us, but the time of our death is something which is not sure, not definite. If it were definite then we could mark it on the calendar and then just practice a bit beforehand, but however that is not the case - we could pass away at any time. So this being the case, we should really strive to engage in the practice of the Dharma while we have the chance to do that.

Then the third contemplation on death is that nothing is of any use to us at the time of death apart from the amount of time we have engaged in the practice of the Dharma. The reason for this is if we look at our predicament - when we are dying, no matter how rich we are, all our wealth gets left behind; no matter how many friends or associates we have, they all get left behind; even our body which we have striven so hard to protect and adorn and make look beautiful - this at the time of death gets left behind; and all that goes on to the future existence is the aggregate of one's mind and the amount of positive potential and Dharma practice which one has imprinted upon the aggregate of one's consciousness. So then we should contemplate that not only do we have this precious human existence which is difficult to find and has great meaning, but we should strive to put this into use through contemplating the great purpose of human life and how difficult it is to achieve that, through contemplating that we are definitely going to die, that the time of our death is uncertain, and that the only thing that will be of any use to us at the time of death is how much Dharma practice we have done in our life.

So the second line then:

There is no time to waste;
reverse attraction to this life…

So here what we are advised to do is to engage in the practices which we have gone through - contemplating the preciousness of one's human existence, how it is something difficult to come by and has great meaning and that it is not something which is going to last but rather is something that is at some point going to pass away. So through these contemplations, we come to the state of reversing attraction to this life. The sign of this is that we do not engage in any worldly actions, that is to say, actions which will bring about a result in this life, rather we are striving to utilise all our time to generate positive potential and positive Dharma training that will be of use to us in future lives. So once that has been developed fully within us, we can be said to be on our way with the practice which is in common with an individual of lesser capacity. Then we should try to emulate the great Kadampa geshe Potowa who used to spend all his time engaged in the practice of meditation or explaining the Dharma or engaging in different kinds of practice. He was continually meditating, reading Dharma, explaining the Dharma - he wasn't an individual like us who runs around doing this and that, but rather had just put his mind solely into Dharma practice, so we should strive to emulate such an individual.

Contemplation on the Karmic Law

So then the text goes on to tell us to:

reverse attraction to future lives;
think repeatedly of the infallible effects of karma
and the misery of this world.

So then one has a human existence now; if one turns one's attention away from this life and directs it towards one's future lives, the very best one can hope to achieve is another human existence like the one we have now or perhaps birth as a god or as a demigod (thus the three realms of bliss, or three higher realms). But if we investigate those three higher realms, they are not something which is stable, that is to say, they are not going to last for a long time - even having been born in those states we will inevitably fall from those states when the time of our death comes.

So the way we can reverse attraction towards, or thinking solely about, one's future existence is thus through contemplating the karmic law, that is to say, the law of cause and effect. So here this is a very profound subject, something which is quite difficult to go into great detail upon in such a short space of time, but if we go through the outline of four. Initially we should understand that karma, or action, is something which is definite, its increase is also something which is definite, and then one will not get certain results, for example a positive result, unless one engages in a positive action, that is to say the cause of such a result, and one won't get a result from which one hasn't planted the cause for its arising.

So if we look at this outline of four serially: Initially then that karma, or action, is definite. This means that if we engage in a positive action it is definite that the result of such an action, or such a karma, will be something positive. For example our human life now is the result of engaging in a positive cause in a past existence, and thus this is the ripening effect of that cause. Now the doubt can come - if someone is born as a human and is continually ill or undergoes a great amount of difficulty in their life, then we might feel 'well, that person is born as a human which, you say, is the result of a positive action; however, their human existence is not anything particularly joyous, anything particularly blissful - so how can that be the result of a positive cause?' So here we should understand a distinction between the different kinds of causes and the different kinds of results of those causes. The very fact that a sick individual has a human body is the result of a positive seed which was planted sometime in a previous existence. However, the various difficulties that this individual undergoes are not the result of the same cause, they are rather the results of different causes, or different karmas. That is to say, that individual has not only committed positive actions in the past, but has also committed negative actions, the ripening results of which are manifest as various difficulties, that is to say, illness etc.

So we can also understand this in reverse - if we look at certain kinds of animals, for example, dogs and cats - even though they are members of what we call the animal kingdom, or are included in the lower realms of existence, then they can still have the results of having committed positive causes in a previous existence. For example, we see dogs that are very, very beautiful, have very beautiful barking, cats that have very beautiful purring and so forth, very beautiful fur, very beautiful tails etc. So these results are not the results of negative causes, or negatives karmas, but rather are the result of positive causes, even though the basis for their ripening is an inferior one which is brought about through a negative karmic action, or a negative cause.

Then the second part of the outline is that karmas, or actions, once committed, increase. We can learn this through a very simple worldly example - if we plant a seed, the result of that seed can be something as huge as a great tree and yield lots of fruit. So a huge tree comes about through a tiny seed and in the same way a small action can bring about a great result, whether it be positive or negative. We read in the biography of the Buddha that a child threw some grains into the Buddha's begging bowl when the Buddha was walking past. Obviously the child couldn't just reach up and put them in the bowl because he was just a child and the Buddha was an adult, so there was a great difference in height. But even through throwing these grains, it is said that four of the grains fell in the begging bowl and one fell on the circular rim of the bowl, and even though this cause was something very, very small, it is said that the result of this was that the individual was born as a wheel-turning king with complete power over the four continents. So even from a small karmic action such as that, the result is something which is much, much bigger and this is explained clearly in the sutras.

Then the latter two of the outline of four are that if one hasn't generated certain causes then one won't experience the result of those causes, and the opposite - if one has accrued certain causes then one will definitely receive the result of those causes. So here then if one engages in a virtuous action then the result of that is something definite which will come to one and vice versa - if one has engaged in a negative action then the result of that is certain to come to one no matter what one's circumstances. We can still see this through an example given in the sutras: When the Sakya lineage of India (that which the Buddha belonged to) were destroyed, all wiped out simultaneously, two of them were hiding in a field, and it is said that even though they were far away from the battleground, owing to the light of the sun, the field caught fire and they perished in the fire. So the Buddha was asked about this: 'These two people who escaped from the battleground then went to this field to hide - how is it that they died at the same time that the Sakya clan was wiped out?' He explained that even though they weren't in the actual battleground, then they still had a similar karma to die at that particular time. So we can see various stories which give us solid examples of how that if we have accrued certain kinds of causes, their effect is definitely going to occur at that time unless that karma is exhausted in some way.

This brings us to the fourth of the outline of four which is that karma in and of itself never goes to waste, that is to say, it doesn't grow rotten and then suddenly disappear in and of itself, rather it is something that stays with us unless it is destroyed. So here then we have the understanding that karma is not something which we have to undergo - we can, if we apply the right antidotes, rid ourselves of these particular positive or negative karmic actions. So as it said then, the only good thing about bad karma is that is can be removed from our mindstream, or from our being. For example if we engage in the practice of love, this is the antidote to anger, and the reverse is quite the same - if we generate anger, this is the thing which destroys love ie virtuous states of mind. So if we have accrued a great amount of positive potential, or karma, this can be destroyed in a moment of anger. And with regard to negative states of mind which we may have generated in the past, if we engage in the opponent powers practices of regretting and then applying the various methods of confession and so forth, we can rid ourselves of these negative karmic seeds which we have in our being since we have accrued them in the past.

So the stanza then tells us to also reflect upon the misery of this world, or the cycle of existence, but tomorrow in the section on compassion, we will engage in the contemplation on the misery of the cycle of existence, so there's no need to go into this now. So if you have a question or two?

Question: I wanted to ask about collective karma. Rinpoche talked a bit about karma but how is it that one karma over-rides and brings a whole group of people to one disaster out of all the karma that there could be?

Rinpoche: With regard to the understanding of karma for an individual - if we understand this well, we will understand that through engaging in positive causes a positive result comes about, and the same for engaging in destructive karmic actions or causes - the result of that will be something unpleasant. So it is not that a group of people collectively engages in one particular action and then goes on to another action, but rather if we understand that through engaging in a positive cause, a positive effect comes around, not only for ourselves but if say everyone in the room has generated a similar cause in the past then the result for all of us can ripen at the same time. It's not that a group has to create a cause as a group, and then kind of all gather back and, as another group, have that result. For example, if we look at time - now we are in the time of the five degenerations, so it's not that we were all in some previous existence engaging in a particular action and the particular result of that is now undergoing the time of the five degenerations; but rather it is that we have engaged in various kinds of negative actions in the past, the result of which - the time of the five degenerations - is being experienced by all people, albeit in slightly different ways.

Question: I have a question for Rinpoche about renunciation. Here in the West we like to have comfortable homes, we have nice clothes, things like that, so I ask how we can practice renunciation without giving up all these things? [Big laugh from class!]

Rinpoche: It's very important to have a sense of satisfaction with oneself, that is to say, if we in general look at the way we behave, if we have some kind of enjoyment, we are always looking to better that enjoyment. If we are wearing some kind of particular clothing, we are always seeking something which is more beautiful, if we have some delicious food, we are always looking for something to match that or better that food. So our mind is not something very content at this point, so it's very important to develop a content and peaceful mind which is looking at one's enjoyments in a realistic fashion. That is to say, whatever we get, be it the very best, we are never going to be satisfied with that if we engage in desire for perfect objects, or beautiful objects - we are always going to try to find something which is better than what we have at the moment. With relationships, having friends, be they Dharma friends or whatever, when we come together, there is always going to come a time at the end when we disperse; and, for example, with our body, we have perfect human existence now, but this is not something which is going to last, it is something which is going to pass out of existence. So if we have a mind which is attached to and desirous of better and better objects, we are always going to be within a state of dissatisfaction, so a mind of satisfaction is something that is extremely important to develop, and more will be said about this in tomorrow's session.

So before tomorrow's session it would be excellent if you could contemplate the subject matter which we have gone through today. I have received this teaching many, many times from many high and extremely realised masters and they in return have received this from their teachers and thus we can trace the lineage back to Buddha himself. So through the blessing of the lineage there is definitely some benefit to be derived from engaging in these contemplations. Whether there is any direct benefit coming from me or not, there is doubt with regard to that, but with regard to the blessing of the lineage, as I mentioned I have received this teaching many times from many highly realised lamas, so remembering their instructions, I am imparting them to you. So if you could engage in the practice of contemplation on the subject matter, that would be excellent.

Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche

New Delhi, India, 1979

A teaching on renunciation, first published in Teachings at Tushita

Dharma protects us from suffering

The Sanskrit word Dharma [Tib: chö] means to hold, or uphold. What is it that Dharma upholds, or maintains? It is the elimination of suffering and the attainment of happiness. Dharma does this not only for us but for all other sentient beings as well.

The sufferings we experience are of two types: those immediately visible to us as humans and those we cannot see without psychic powers. The former include the pain involved in the birth process, the unpleasantness of occasionally becoming sick, the misery experienced by growing old and aging, and the terror of death.

The sufferings that come after death are not visible to an ordinary person. We might think that when we die we will probably be reborn as a human being. However, this is not necessarily the case. There is no logical reason for us to assume that such an evolution will occur. Nor is it the case that after we die we will not take rebirth at all.

As for the particular type of rebirth we will take, this is very difficult to predict; it’s not within our present sphere of knowledge. If we generate positive karma during this life, it will naturally follow that we will take happy forms of rebirth in the future. Conversely, if we create mostly negative karma, we will not take a happy rebirth but experience great difficulties in lower states of being. This is certain. That’s the way rebirth works. If you plant a wheat seed, a wheat plant grows; if you plant a rice seed, a rice plant is produced. Similarly, if you create negative karma, you’re planting the seeds of rebirth in one of the three lower states as a hell being, a hungry ghost or an animal.

Although the sufferings of the hell beings and hungry ghosts may be invisible to us, we can see those of the animals with our own eyes. If we wonder what it would be like if we ourselves were to be reborn as animals, we can just look at those around us and imagine what it would be like to be in their condition. Dharma is that which holds us back and protects us from experiencing the suffering of the three lower realms.

However, the entire wheel of rebirth, the whole of cyclic existence, is in the nature of suffering. Dharma safeguards us from all of it. Moreover, the Mahayana Dharma, the teachings of the great vehicle, protects not only ourselves but also all other living beings.

In Buddhism, we hear a lot about the Three Jewels of Refuge—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The first of these includes all the fully enlightened beings who teach the Dharma. For us, Buddha Shakyamuni, who first turned the wheel of Dharma at Sarnath by teaching the four noble truths, is the most significant. The last of these four truths—the truth of the path—is the Dharma that we must practice in order to achieve liberation. This is the refuge object called the Dharma jewel.

The cause of suffering

Dharma practice entails two things: recognizing and eradicating the root of samsaric suffering. What is the root of cyclic existence? It is the grasping at a truly existent self and at truly existent phenomena. Therefore, we need to develop revulsion for this grasping that brings us all our suffering and an understanding of the antidote to it. The antidote to grasping at true existence is the wisdom realizing selflessness; a deep understanding of selflessness will liberate us from suffering.

The sufferings we experience in cyclic existence are caused by the karma created by our acting under the influence of the delusions. When we understand this, we aspire to obtain the antidote to self-grasping. Why have we not yet developed this antidote in our mind stream; why don’t we understand selflessness? One reason is that we are not sufficiently aware of impermanence and death.

Contemplating impermanence and death

The only possible outcome of birth is death. We are inevitably going to die. There has never been a sentient being whose life did not end with death. People try many methods to prevent death from occurring, but it’s impossible. No medicine can cure us of death.

But just thinking “I’m going to die” isn’t really the correct way to contemplate death. Of course, everybody is going to die, but merely recalling this fact is not very powerful. It is not the proper method. Similarly, just thinking of the fact that our body is constantly disintegrating and deteriorating and will eventually fail is also not enough. What we have to think about is how to prevent all this from happening.

If we think about the fear that we’ll experience at the time of death and how to eliminate it, our meditation on death will be effective. People who have accumulated much negative karma during their lives become very frightened at the time of death. They cry, drool, excrete into their clothing and are completely overwhelmed—clear signs of the fear and suffering that occur at death because of negative actions created during life.

Alternatively, if during our lifetime we refrain from committing negative actions, death will be very easy to face. Death can be a joyous experience, like that of a child coming home. If we have purified ourselves, we can die happily. By abstaining from creating the ten non-virtuous actions and cultivating their opposites, the ten virtues, our death will be easy and, as a result, we won’t have to experience rebirth in conditions of suffering. We will be assured of rebirth in more fortunate states.

If we plant seeds of medicinal plants, we get trees with medicinal powers; if we plant seeds of poisonous trees, we get poisonous fruit. Similarly, if we plant the seeds of virtuous actions on our consciousness, we will experience happiness in future rebirths; we will experience good fortune, both mentally and physically. This basic Dharma teaching of avoiding the ten non-virtuous deeds and cultivating the ten virtues is given not only in Buddhism but also in many other religions.

If simply thinking “I’m going to die” is not very beneficial, how then should we contemplate death and impermanence? We should think, “If I have created any of the ten non-virtuous actions, when I die I will have to face great fear and suffering and will be reborn into unimaginable misery. If, on the other hand, I have created virtue, when I die I will not experience much fear or suffering and will be reborn into a fortunate state.” That is the correct way to think about death.

This meditation is not thinking gloomily and pessimistically, “I’m going to die and there’s nothing I can do about it,” but rather contemplating intelligently, “Where will I go after death? What sort of causes have I created? Can I make my death a happy one? How? Can I make my future rebirths happy? How?”

When contemplating future rebirths we should remember that there is no place in cyclic existence that is reliable. No matter what body we obtain, it must eventually pass away. We read accounts of people who have lived for a hundred or even a thousand years, but no matter how fantastic their stories, they have all had to die. All samsaric bodies are subject to death.

Moreover, there is no place to which we can run to escape death. No matter where we are, when the time comes, we’ll have to die. At that time, no amount of medicine, mantra or practice will help. Surgery can cure certain diseases, but it can’t prevent death.

No matter what type of rebirth we gain, it will be subject to death. The process is ongoing. Contemplating the long-range effects of our actions and the continuity of the process of birth, life, death and rebirth will help us generate much positive karma.

Even though we sometimes plan to practice the Dharma, we usually plan to do so tomorrow or the day after. However, we can’t tell when we’re going to die. If we were guaranteed a hundred years to live, we’d be able to plan our practice long-range, but we have not the slightest certainty of when we’re going to die. Therefore, it’s very foolish to put our practice off. Some people die in the womb before they’re even born; others die as small babies before they’ve even learned to walk. There’s no logic in thinking that we’re going to live long.

Furthermore, our body is very fragile. If it were made of stone or iron we could be excused for thinking that it was very stable, but we can easily see that it’s very weak and liable to go wrong at any moment. It’s like a delicate wrist-watch made of countless tiny, fragile parts. Our body is not to be trusted. And there are many circumstances that can cause our death: food that has become poisonous, the bite of a small insect or the prick of a tiny thorn. Such seemingly insignificant conditions can kill us. Even the food and drink we ingest to extend our life can become the circumstances that end it. There’s no certainty as to when we’ll die or what will cause our death.

Even if we feel certain that we’ll live a hundred years, many of those years have already passed and we haven’t accomplished much. We approach death like somebody asleep in a railway carriage, constantly getting closer and closer to the destination but unaware of the process. Of course, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We just constantly get ever-closer to death.

No matter how much money, jewelry, houses or clothes we accumulate in life, it makes no difference whatsoever at the time of death. When we die, we go to the next life empty-handed; we cannot take even the tiniest material object with us. Even our body must be left behind; our mind and body separate and our mind goes on alone.

If at death we have to leave our body, our friends and all our possessions, what, then, accompanies our consciousness at that time? Is there anything that can go with it to the next life? Yes, there is. When we die, the karmic imprints that we have accumulated during our life accompany our consciousness.

Creating positive and negative karma

If we have created any of the ten non-virtuous actions, a negative karmic debt accompanies our mind-stream as it evolves into the future rebirth. By killing other beings, stealing others’ possessions or indulging in sexual misconduct, we leave karmic imprints of these negative physical actions on our consciousness. By lying, slandering other people and causing disunity among them, gossiping or speaking harshly, harming others with words, we leave karmic imprints of these negative verbal actions on our consciousness. By harboring covetous thoughts, wishing to have the possessions of others; generating ill-will towards others, wishing them harm; or holding distorted views, such as “there are no past or future lives,” “there’s no such thing as cause and effect” or “there’s no such thing as refuge,” we leave karmic imprints of these negative mental actions on our consciousness. All these negative karmic debts travel with and direct our mind into future rebirths.

The reverse is also true. If we turn away from negativity and create virtuous actions of body, speech and mind, the karmic seeds of these positive actions also travel on our mind-stream and produce better circumstances in our future lives.

If we really think about the situation we’re in we’ll resolve to try to generate positive karma and eliminate its opposite in whatever way we can. In other words, we should try to create as little negativity as possible and purify the seeds of past negative actions so that not even the smallest karmic debt remains to be repaid in our future lives.

We also need to look at the kinds of result that can happen within the law of cause and effect. For example, there’s the story of a person who had many good qualities but was harsh in his speech. Once he abused another person by saying, “You talk like a dog.” As a result, he himself was reborn as a dog five hundred times. Seemingly small negative actions can bring devastating effects.

Similarly, however, small positive actions can also produce great results. For example, there’s the story of the young child who made a humble offering to the Buddha and as a result was reborn as the great king Ashoka, who built thousands of stupas and performed countless other sublime activities.

Developing renunciation

Contemplating the various non-virtues we have committed and their results is a very effective way of ensuring our welfare and happiness. When we think of the suffering we ourselves will have to bear as a result of our negativities, we’ll give birth to the strong, indestructible wish not to have to experience all this misery and will have developed what is called renunciation.

Acquainting ourselves with this type of thinking is itself a form of meditation—analytical meditation. First we develop mindfulness of our own suffering; then we extend this mindfulness to the suffering of all other sentient beings. Considering deeply how all beings want to be completely free of all suffering but are caught in a net of suffering from which they cannot escape leads to compassion.

If we don’t develop the wish to be free from all our own suffering, how can we develop the wish for others to be free from theirs? We can put an end to our own suffering, but this in itself is not ultimately beneficial. We need to extend this wish to all living beings, who also desire happiness. We can train our mind to develop the wish for all sentient beings to be completely parted from their sufferings. This is a much wider and more beneficial way of thinking.

Why should we concern ourselves with the suffering of other living beings? It’s because we receive so much from others: the milk we drink comes from the kindness of others, the warm clothing that protects us from the wind and cold, the house we live in, the money we receive, our precious human body—all these things come from the kindness of others; the list is endless. However, just these few examples should be enough to show us why we should try to find a method that can eliminate the suffering of all the kind mother sentient beings.

No matter what kind of practice we do—the recitation of mantras, any other kind of meditation, whatever it is—we should always do it with the thought, “May this benefit all living beings.” Not only will this help others; it will naturally benefit us as well. Ordinary life situations can give us an appreciation of this: somebody who is very selfish and always works for his or her own gain is never really liked by others whereas somebody who is very kind and always helping others is usually very popular.

The thought we must develop in our mind stream is, “May all beings be happy and may none of them suffer.” We should try to incorporate this thought into our own thinking by remembering it again and again. This will be extremely beneficial. Those who in the past developed this thought are now great buddhas, bodhisattvas or saints; all the truly great people of the world based their lives upon it. How wonderful it would be if we could try to generate this thought within ourselves.

Q. Are we advised not to defend ourselves when somebody tries to harm us?
Serkong Rinpoche. That question introduces a very extensive subject. If somebody hits you over the head with a stick, the best response is to meditate that you experienced this because of your own past negative actions. Think how this person is allowing that particular karmic debt to ripen now rather than at some future time. You should feel gratitude that this person has eliminated that negative karmic debt from your mind stream.

Q. What if somebody attacks my wife or child, who are under my protection? Should I not defend them? Would it be negative to do so?
Serkong Rinpoche. As it is your duty to protect your wife and child, you must try to do so as skillfully as possible. You have to be clever. The best way to protect them is without harming their attacker. In other words, you have to find a method of protecting them whereby you do not inflict any harm.

Q. He can he harm my children but I cannot harm him? Is it not our duty to defend our children against barbarous and cruel acts? Should we just lay down our lives?
Serkong Rinpoche. In order to handle this situation skillfully you need a great deal of courage. There’s a story about a previous life of the Buddha in which he was a navigator who went to sea with a group of five hundred people in search of buried treasure. One of these people had very greedy thoughts of murdering all the others and stealing the jewels for himself. The bodhisattva navigator became aware of the man’s intentions and thought it incorrect to let a situation develop where one man killed five hundred. Therefore, he developed the courageous thought of saving the five hundred by killing this one man, willingly accepting upon himself the full responsibility of killing. If you are willing to be reborn in hell in order to save others, you have a greatly courageous thought and can engage in these acts, just as the Buddha himself did.

Q. Under such circumstances, is killing still considered to be a negative action?
Serkong Rinpoche. Nagarjuna says in his Friendly Letter that if one commits negativity in the name of protecting one’s parents, children, Buddhism or the Three Jewels of Refuge, one will have to experience the consequences. The difference is in whether or not you are aware of the consequences and are willing to take them upon yourself in order to selflessly protect your wife and child. If you harm the enemy, you are going to experience a suffering rebirth. However, you should be willing to face this by thinking, “I will take that suffering on myself so that my wife and child don’t suffer.”

Q. Then according to Buddhism it would still be a non-virtuous act?
Serkong Rinpoche. Protecting your wife and child is virtuous but harming your enemy is not. You have to be willing to accept the consequences of both actions.

Q. You said that those who create negative karma will suffer in the future but those who do good will experience happiness. Can these good actions lead to complete liberation, in the sense of not having to experience rebirth?
Serkong Rinpoche. If you want to gain complete liberation from cyclic existence, you have to follow the teachings of the Buddha completely and precisely. If you do so correctly, liberation from cyclic existence is definitely possible.