Practicing the Path - Introduction

A Commentary on the Lamrim Chenmo
 

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INTRODUCTION TO THE TEXT

Although it is common to view the attainment of enlightenment as the supreme accomplishment of the Buddhist path, it is important to keep in mind that the supreme purpose of that accomplishment is to benefit sentient beings in the most extraordinary way. Once we become enlightened, we will be completely empowered and fully able to bring about the ultimate benefit of others. In contrast, the way we are now, at most we are able to benefit others only temporarily.

To understand enlightenment we need to understand nirvana, or liberation, which means freedom from cyclic existence. In order to understand nirvana, we need to understand the conventional level of cyclic existence, which in turn requires an understanding of consciousness. Samsara, or cyclic existence, does not refer to our land or our house or our things. Samsara refers to the mental afflictions and the negative thoughts that bind us to this tiresome cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Everything in the Buddhadharma depends on the understanding of consciousness, as it is the mind itself that imprisons us in cyclic existence, and the mind itself that liberates us.

According to the teachings of Buddha, the way that things ordinarily appear to our minds is fundamentally mistaken. Problems, difficulties, and hardships arise in our lives because of these basic misconceptions, because we are not able to see things the way that they actually are. According to Buddhism, we perceive the things and events in our lives from a totally obscured perspective. What we experience from this perspective is known as conventional existence. All of our problems arise because we grasp the conventional nature of things as being ultimately true.

Therefore, Buddhist philosophy is not just intellectual thought or theory. The Buddhist point of view is, ultimately, the antidote to all of our pain and problems. Its foremost objective is to eliminate the suffering in our minds.

In order to attain enlightenment, we must understand the path that leads to that state. The teachings on the graduated path to enlightenment, or the lamrim, help us do just that. Perhaps some of you have heard lamrim teachings already; others may be brand new. Regardless, there are two important things that I would like you to keep in mind as you study this text. The first is that it is essential that you try to integrate these teachings with your mind. There should not be a gap between your mind and the teachings at any point. If there is such a gap, although it may be possible for you to derive some sort of intellectual understanding of the teachings, you will not be able to apply them to your experience and you will not get very far on the path. If, however, you receive the teachings on the lamrim with the firm intention to put them into practice and improve your mind, you will be building a house with a perfect foundation, and you will reap the rewards later on.

The second point that you should consider is your motivation to receive these teachings. If you do virtuous activities with attachment, or with a mind distracted by the eight worldly concerns, the results will not be pure. If you engage in violent activities without compassion, even in the context of your tantric practice, these activities become nonvirtuous. If you take teachings on the profound path of wisdom or the extensive path of method with thoughts of pride or jealousy, your otherwise positive actions become polluted. As Lama Atisha says, if the roots of the plant are poisonous, then the trunk, the branches, the leaves, the flowers, and the fruits will also be poisonous. And when the roots of the tree are medicinal, the rest of the tree will be medicinal as well. In the same way, if your motivation is rooted in nonvirtue and negativity, your actions will also be nonvirtuous, and if your motivation is rooted in the wish to benefit others, your actions will be beneficial as well.

Studying the blessed teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa only in order to increase your intellectual understanding is a mistake. Studying with the expectation of worldly gain in this life is also absolutely wrong. Even studying with aspirations for the next life—hoping to obtain a precious human rebirth or free yourself from the difficulties of cyclic existence—is not correct. You must consider: which is more important—one person’s happiness, or the happiness of all beings? Clearly, it is a great mistake to focus on your own comfort and happiness alone, without considering others. From beginningless time you have suffered in cyclic existence due to the thought “I must be happy.” This concern for the self has been the basis of all of your downfalls. Thinking in this way for numberless lifetimes, you have thus far accomplished nothing.

From the Eight Verses of Mind Training, by the Kadam Geshe Langri Tangpa:

By thinking of all sentient beings
As even better than wish-granting gems
For accomplishing the highest aim
May I always consider them precious.

If you are able to practice as this text advises, you will naturally begin to cherish others, and eventually develop the wish to devote yourself entirely to working for their benefit. This thought is the foundation of the entire graduated path to enlightenment.

The Eight Verses also says:

Wherever I go, with whomever I go
May I see myself as the lowest of all, and
From the depth of my heart
May I consider others to be supremely precious.

The practice of seeing oneself as “the lowest of all” is fundamental to your practice of lamrim. This way of thinking is not intended to demean you. Rather, seeing yourself as the one of least importance, and others as the most important, is in fact one of the most advantageous ways of thinking. On the basis of this thought you can establish the foundation of happiness and develop bodhichitta, which will enable you to attain liberation and enlightenment. If you do not understand and grasp this essential principle of the spiritual path, then no matter how elaborate or decorative your practice might be, it will be meaningless.

Most of us actually have the wish to benefit sentient beings. We pray and we meditate on compassion and bodhichitta and so forth. But ultimately, if we don’t uproot our self-cherishing mind even a little, no matter how much we meditate on kindness, the only benefit we will receive is a good feeling. This applies to any kind of long retreat, listening to teachings, as well as taking any of the three classes of vows.1 In general, everyone has some wish to benefit others, some wish to make their lives useful. But in order to actually accomplish this, we must let go of our sense of self-importance. Ego-grasping is the greatest obstacle to the wish to benefit others. The more we can diminish the self-cherishing mind, the purer and more fruitful our wish to benefit others will become.

Trying to become aware of exactly how much we are cherishing ourselves is the perfect practice for the beginner. Coming to the recognition of the depth and the grossness of our self-cherishing mind early on in the path is essential. Perhaps, rather than doing so many sessions of deity yoga, it would be more useful for us to do a session meditating on the way we have promoted the self-cherishing mind in the past, a session on how much we are promoting the self-cherishing mind at the moment, and a session on how much we plan to promote the self-cherishing mind in the future. This would be an extremely good way to start ourselves off on the path.

It is very easy for us to recognize the way in which someone else is cherishing themselves, but it is also very easy for us to forget that we are doing the same thing! However, the fact that we are capable of recognizing selfcherishing in others shows that we are indeed capable of seeing it. Therefore, we only have to change the object from another person to ourselves. When we are able to do that, we have the basis upon which we can train our minds.

The objective of Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, or the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, is to eliminate the selfcherishing mind. Once that objective is in focus, we can begin on the path to liberation and enlightenment.

Let me clarify one point. I do not mean to say that I, myself, am this kind of perfect practitioner. I am exactly the same as you—I see another person’s self-cherishing quite clearly, but I am unaware of how it manifests in my own actions of body, speech, and mind. Therefore, I would like to make it clear that I am not giving this commentary on this text because I am confident that I have understood it and can practice it, or because I feel that I know all of the intricate details of the lamrim. Rather, I am going on the strength of the faith and the trust that since this is the wish of our teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, it fulfills some necessity, and thereby will have some beneficial result. 

FOUR METHODS TO TEACH THE LAMRIM

I, myself, have had teachings on the lamrim many times. I have received the teachings on the Lamrim Chenmo from His Holiness Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s senior tutor. I have also received teachings on the eight lamrim texts from His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself. Although I cannot say that I have grasped all the teachings exactly as His Holiness has taught them, I do have the confidence that I have received the blessing of the oral transmission.

It is stated in Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Paths that the essence of all the teachings of Buddha is contained within the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma. The lamrim, in turn, takes the heart of the three turnings and makes it available for one individual to practice. Through understanding and meditating on lamrim, it is possible to realize renunciation, bodhichitta, and emptiness. Once you have studied lamrim, you hold the key that opens the door to the entire expanse of the teachings.

It is important to understand that the practice of the graduated path to enlightenment is not something exclusive to the teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa. Nor is it correct to say that the lamrim tradition began with Lama Tsongkhapa as such, because all of these teachings have their source in the teachings of Buddha himself. Nor should you think that lamrim is something exclusive to the Gelug tradition. Perhaps some of you are even wondering if you have to be a follower of the Gelug tradition to practice the lamrim. The answer to this is no. The point of the lamrim is not to make you a Gelugpa. The point of the lamrim is to improve your mind, develop your compassion, and eliminate your grasping at true existence. To think that practicing the lamrim makes you a Gelugpa is another support for your ignorance. The lamrim is the path and practice for individuals of the three scopes—the small, medium, and great scope—and the subject matter is common to the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug traditions.

In our everyday lives, before we make a material purchase, we examine the quality of whatever it is we are planning to buy. Of course, no matter how big a mistake we make in the purchase of a material item, that loss will only affect us for a short time. But if, when choosing a spiritual path, we fail to analyze or research the path we plan to adopt and then make a mistake, that mistake can affect us much more deeply.

Buddha advised:

Bhikshus and wise ones,
As gold is burnt, cut, and rubbed
Take my advice by examining my speech well—
Not [merely] for the sake of respect.

These words advise us to check the validity of the Buddhadharma before accepting any of these practices as our own path. This is an important point, and we should take care to do this to the best of our ability. We can test the validity of the teachings by examining whether or not those that are categorized as the actual presentation can be faulted by valid cognition, whether or not those that are categorized as slightly hidden teachings can be faulted by inferential valid cognition, and whether or not those that are categorized as extremely hidden phenomena can be faulted by the inferential cognition of belief. It is important to understand the way these cognitions function in order to be able to apply proper analysis. We will discuss this topic further later on.

According to tradition, there are four methods by which the lamrim teachings are commonly presented.

The first method, which is recommended for beginners, is known as direct explanation. In this method of presentation, the teacher clarifies each point of the outline explicitly and in detail in order to help the student develop a clear and complete understanding. A faultless understanding is essential to fruitful meditation. It is commonly said that we must begin on the path by listening extensively.2 From this listening we can develop an understanding of the teachings, and through this understanding we can cultivate meditation. There is no food for meditation if we do not have understanding, and there is no understanding if we have not listened.

In the second method of presenting the lamrim, the teacher points out the faults and mistakes in the mind of the student directly and then teaches their antidotes. 

In the third method of presentation, the teacher gives instructions based on his or her own spiritual experience and realization of the subjects.

The fourth method of presentation is the gradual method. A student being trained in this manner may first be instructed on the subject of precious human rebirth and then sent away to meditate upon it. Until the student shows signs of having generated a complete experience of that subject, the next topic will not be taught. This method takes months and years, for which we don’t have time.

This commentary will be given primarily according to the first method of presentation.

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE LAMRIM

The Lamrim Chenmo is the most elaborate explanation on the graduated path to enlightenment that exists within the Gelug tradition. It is unique in that it utilizes scriptural authority in addition to perfect logic and reasoning in order to clarify all doubts on the subject matter. The result of this is that whatever understanding of Dharma that the student gains from studying this text is unshakable.

Traditionally, there are eight great lamrim texts. Three were composed by Lama Tsongkhapa: the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, the Medium Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, and the Snall Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. Two lamrims in conjunction with the tantric path were composed by the Panchen Lamas: the Quick Path by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, and the Blissful Path by Panchen Losang Yeshe. As well, there are two lamrim texts composed by the Third and Fifth Dalai Lamas: Essence of Refined Gold by the Third, and its commentary Instruction From Manjushri, which was composed by the Fifth. The eighth is the lamrim text composed by Dakpo Ngawang Drakpa which is known as the Essence of Eloquent Sayings.

Lama Tsongkhapa composed the Lamrim Chenmo in the late part of his life, around the age of forty-seven. After completing his summer retreat in Tibet in a place known as Reting, Lama Tsongkhapa composed the prayers of request to the lineage lamas of the lamrim, at which time it is said that he had a direct vision of the lineage lamas, which means that he actually saw them in the same way that we see one another now. In this vision, the lineage lamas appeared to dissolve one by one into each other, until eventually all of them dissolved into the great pandit Lama Atisha. Lama Atisha then pledged his commitment to support and help Lama Tsongkhapa with the composition and teaching of the text. Then Lama Atisha in turn absorbed into Lama Tsongkhapa himself.

Lama Tsongkhapa was also known to have direct visionary experiences of Manjushri. In one of these instances, Manjushri taught him the subject matter of the Three Principal Paths, which is a short text in which the instructions on developing renunciation, bodhichitta, and the wisdom realizing emptiness are presented in a very skillful, precise manner. Later, when Lama Tsongkhapa was composing the Lamrim Chenmo, Manjushri challenged him, saying that there was no need, as the entire path to enlightenment was already set forth in the Three Principal Paths. Lama Tsongkhapa explained that in order to create an even more profound presentation, he wished to combine the subject matter of the Three Principal Paths with the structure of Lama Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, in which the method of practicing the path is organized into the framework of the three scopes.

During the actual composition of the text, Lama Tsongkhapa wrote the sections on the small, medium, and the great scope of the Lamrim Chenmo straight through up until the section on superior insight. When he reached that section he stopped, doubting whether writing it would be of benefit. At that point, Manjushri appeared to him and advised that he continue, saying that it would be moderately beneficial, even if not greatly beneficial.

Five Preeminent Qualities

The Lamrim Chenmo is praised for possessing five preeminent qualities. The first is its manner of explanation—that it contains Manjushri’s explanations of renunciation, bodhichitta, and wisdom, and that this subject matter is further enriched by the structure of the three scopes as presented in Lama Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. The second preeminent quality of the text is the unmistaken order in which the topics are set forth. The third quality is the excellence of those who requested that it be taught. This refers to the disciples of Lama Tsongkhapa who were renowned for their knowledge, their realizations, their goodness of heart, and their diligence in the spiritual path. The fourth quality is the auspiciousness of the place where it was written—Reting was actually named by Shakyamuni Buddha in the sutras as a place where, in the future, the teachings on the profound and the extensive path would arise and flourish. The last quality is the auspiciousness of the entourage. This refers to the two heart disciples of Lama Tsongkhapa who were present when the composition of the Lamrim Chenmo took place.

HOW TO TEACH THE LAMRIM

There are two schools of thought regarding the basis upon which to begin the activity of teaching the lamrim. The first, in accordance with the tradition as established in the ancient monastic university of Nalanda, which was renowned for its many great learned masters and accomplished practitioners, states the prerequisite of three purities. These are the purity of the teacher’s speech, the purity of the student’s mind, and the purity of the subject matter.

The purity of the teacher’s speech means that there must be no mistakes on the part of the teacher in explaining the sequence of the path.

The purity of the motivation of the student means that the students should ensure that they are not listening to the teachings with the wish to become learned and well known for their expertise in the subject. They must also be free of the motivation of coming to the teachings in order to look for mistakes in the presentation, or with a feeling of competitiveness toward their peers.

The purity of the Dharma means that the subject matter must be unmistaken and complete in all aspects. This refers to the fact that the authority of the two lineages of method and wisdom should be established through the lineage masters and rooted in the teachings of Buddha himself.

The second school of thought regarding the basis upon which to begin the teaching of the lamrim is in accordance with the great monastic university of Vikramashila. In this method, the preeminent qualities of the author and the Dharma itself are explained, so that one might develop respect and appreciation for these instructions. Since, in present times, we tend not to examine the meaning of the Dharma, but only look at the words, and since we are less likely to rely on the Dharma itself, but rather depend too much on the person, the Vikramashila system is perhaps the most suitable for us. Therefore, I will begin my explanation of the text with a discussion of these points.

THE OPENING STANZAS

I prostrate to the Guru Manjushri.

Body produced from millions of excellent virtues,
Speech fulfilling the wishes of countless sentient beings,
Mind seeing all objects of knowledge as they exist,
I prostrate to Buddha Shakyamuni.

According to custom, a philosophical text in the Tibetan tradition begins with lines of praise, the author’s commitment to complete the writing, and words of encouragement for the student to study and practice the subject matter.

The praise may be dedicated to Manjushri, or to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, or to any of them. The object of praise depends on the subject matter: texts from the Vinaya Pitaka traditionally begin with a praise to Shakyamuni Buddha; texts from the Sutra Pitaka traditionally begin with lines of praise to the buddhas and bodhisattvas; and texts from the Abhidharma Pitaka often begin with lines of praise to Manjushri. Alternatively, we can say that when the praise is directed to Shakyamuni Buddha, it indicates that the subject of the text will be the higher training in ethics. When the praise is directed to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, the subject matter will be the higher training in concentration. When a text begins with praise to Manjushri, the subject matter will be the training in higher wisdom.

The Lamrim Chenmo begins with the words, “Namo Guru Manjughoshaya,” which is a line of homage in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit is used in order create a connection to the source language in the mind of the reader, to encourage receptivity to the blessings of this particular text, and also to establish the authority of the text as having been translated from the original language. The translation of this particular Sanskrit line is: “To the guru, Manjushri, I prostrate.” Arya Manjushri and Lama Tsongkhapa had an extremely close relationship, that of direct teacher and disciple. Lama Tsongkhapa received extensive teachings from Arya Manjushri on both the profound view of wisdom and the extensive method of conduct, and thus he offers the first line of praise to Arya Manjushri, his guru. The second line of praise is offered to the body of Shakyamuni Buddha. This is followed by praise of the speech, which fulfills all the wishes of sentient beings, and praise of the holy mind of Buddha, which sees all existence exactly as it is.

These lines of praise are meant to indicate to us that enlightenment is not self-arisen, but rather results from causes and conditions that are virtuous by nature. These causes and conditions are the determination to emerge from cyclic existence, or the mind of renunciation, the wish to attain enlightenment solely for the welfare of others, or the mind of bodhichitta, and the wisdom realizing emptiness. These, in turn, come forth as a result of extensive listening to the teachings, cultivation of the understanding of the teachings, and subsequent meditation upon them. The result of the complete accumulation of the merit of virtue and the merit of wisdom is an enlightened holy body, holy speech, and holy mind. If we reflect in this way on the significance of these lines of praise, a sense of faith and respect will arise easily, and there will be much greater meaning in the praise and prostrations that we offer.

The next stanzas of praise in the Lamrim Chenmo are offered to Arya Manjushri and Arya Maitreya, and then to Nagarjuna and Asanga, who are considered the great revivers of the teachings of Buddha. The main lineage of the profound path of wisdom begins with Manjushri and is passed to Nagarjuna. In the same way, the lineage of the extensive path of method is passed from Shakyamuni Buddha to Maitreya and then to Asanga. Nagarjuna came about four hundred years after the passing of Buddha, and Asanga came about five hundred years after that. Both were foretold by Buddha. These two lineages were eventually combined in Lama Atisha, who is regarded as the treasury of the essential advice of Buddha.

The last verse of praise pays homage to the “eyes that view all the vast teachings”—the spiritual teachers: Lama Tsongkhapa, all the direct and indirect lineage gurus, the Kadampas4 of the textual lineage, and the Kadampas of the instruction lineage. These lineage holders and one’s own root guru are considered to be the supreme gateway to liberation.

The next stanza addresses Lama Tsongkhapa’s personal reasons for undertaking the writing of this text and his pledge of commitment to writing it. Earlier we discussed the external conditions that contributed to its writing: the auspicious place of Reting, Arya Manjushri’s involvement, the auspicious gathering, and so forth. In addition to that, the internal conditions were Lama Tsongkhapa’s strong wish to clarify the ignorance of sentient beings, his wish to show that the various teachings of Buddha are the one medicine eliminating all suffering, and his wish to complete the offering of practice to his teachers.

The promise to compose the text is followed by the presentation of the description of the disciple who is qualified to receive these teachings. Such a disciple must be blessed with a perfect human rebirth, must have the wish to make that rebirth meaningful, and must possess a mind not darkened by bias. He or she must also be honest and blessed with the ability to discriminate between what is right and what is wrong.