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Method, Wisdom and the Three Paths
Geshe Lhundrub Sopa Rinpoche, a great scholar of Sera Monastery renowned for his insight into the Mahayana philosophy of emptiness, has taught in the USA for more than thirty-five years and recently retired from his professorship at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He is the spiritual head of Madison’s Deer Park Buddhist Center. He gave this teaching at Tushita on July 30, 1980. From Teachings at Tushita, edited by Nicholas Ribush with Glenn H. Mullin, Mahayana Publications, New Delhi, 1981. A new edition of this book is in preparation. Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre is the FPMT centre in New Delhi, India.
As the great eleventh century Indian master Atisha has said, “The human lifespan is short, the objects of knowledge are many. Be like the swan, which can separate milk from water.”
Our lives will not last long and there are so many directions in which we can channel them. We should be like the swan, which extracts the essence from milk and spits out the water. There is so much that can be done: we should practice discriminating wisdom and direct ourselves to essential goals that benefit both ourselves and other beings in a way affecting this and future lives.
Human goals should be greater than those of beings such as animals, insects, and others because humans have greater potential. We have a very special intellectual capacity and can accomplish many things, even in one short lifespan. The goal to be accomplished should benefit not only ourselves but all sentient beings. Every sentient being hopes to gain the highest state of happiness or pleasure and be free from all kinds of suffering. All beings would like to attain a state of complete freedom from every kind of trouble and misery.
A human being has the potential to attain the highest happiness, the highest peace. Everybody would like to have such a state of being. Alternatively, everybody wishes to avoid misery and suffering. As spiritual practitioners we should wish freedom from misery not only for ourselves but for all sentient beings. Humans have an intelligence capable of achieving these goals. They are able to practice the teachings, the methods by which these goals are realized. A human can begin from his own starting point and then gradually attain higher levels of being, until final perfection is achieved. In certain cases the highest goal, the state Buddhists call buddhahood, enlightenment, or the pure light, can be attained in a single lifetime.
IIn the Bodhisattvacharyavatara, the great yogi and bodhisattva Shantideva wrote, “We all seek happiness, but turn our backs on it. We all wish to avoid misery, but race to collect its causes.” What we want and what we’re doing are in contradiction. Our activities aimed at bringing happiness just cause suffering, misery and trouble. Shantideva goes on to explain how even if we desire to obtain happiness, because of ignorance we usually destroy its cause. We treat the causes of happiness like we would an enemy.
According to the Buddhist teachings, people must first learn, or study. Is there a way to attain the highest achievement, a state of peaceful freedom, the perfect light? This opens the doors of spiritual inquiry. We then discover that if we direct our efforts and our wisdom, we can gain personal knowledge of that very goal. This leads us to seek out methods or paths to enlightenment. Buddha set forth many different levels of teachings. As humans we are able to learn these—learn not only for the sake of learning, but to practice the methods.
What is the cause of happiness? What is the cause of misery? These are important questions in Buddhist teachings. Buddha pointed out that the very source of all our troubles is wrong perception, or wrong ideation. We are always holding some kind of “I,” some sort of egocentric thought or attitude. Everything we do is based on this wrong conception of the nature of the self. From this wrong grasping, this attachment to an “I,” comes all self-centered thought and the thought cherishing oneself over others. This is the basis on which rest all the worldly thoughts and which creates samsara. The problems of all sentient beings start from this point. This thought, this ignorance creates all attachment to the “I.” From “me” comes “mine”—my property, body, mind, family, friends; my house, country, work and so forth. From attachment arises anger at or hatred for the things that threaten the objects of attachment. In Buddhism we call these three—ignorance, attachment and aversion, or anger—the three poisons. They are the real poisons. They are the real causes of our problems. They are the real enemy. We usually look outside for our enemies, but Buddhist yogis realize that there is no enemy outside. The enemy is inside. Once one removes ignorance, attachment and aversion the inner enemy has been vanquished. Pure consciousness remains. Ignorance is replaced by correct understanding. There is no longer any mistake in one’s perception. The delusions are gone.
Ignorance, hatred and attachment, together with their branches such as conceit, jealousy, envy and so forth are very strong forces. Once they arise they quickly dominate the mind. Then we fall under the power of the inner enemy and no longer have control or freedom. These inner enemies even cause us to fight with and harm the people we love; they can even cause someone to kill their own parents, children and so forth. From where do such acts come? They come from the inner enemies, from attachment, anger and ignorance. All conflicts, from those between members of a family to international wars, arise from these negative thoughts.
Shantideva said, “There is one cause of all problems.” This is the ignorance which mistakes the actual nature of the self. All sentient beings are similar in that they are all overpowered by this ego-grasping ignorance. On the other hand, each one of us is capable of engaging in the yogic practices that refine the mind to the point that it is able to see directly the way things exist. One can then see the true nature of the self and all phenomena. The workings of the illusory world no longer occur. When ignorance is gone, mistaken action will not occur. When actions are done without mistake, the various sufferings will not arise. The forces of karma are not engaged. Karma, the actions of the body, speech and mind of sentient beings, together with the seeds they leave on the mind, are brought under control. The causes of these actions—ignorance, attachment and hatred—are destroyed, thus the actions that arise from them cease.
Buddha himself first studied, then practiced, and finally realized Dharma, achieving enlightenment. He saw the principles of the causes and effects of thought and action, and then taught people how to work with these laws in such a way as to gain freedom.
His first teaching was on the four truths seen by an arya: suffering, its cause, liberation and the path to liberation. First we must learn to recognize the sufferings and frustrations that pervade our lives. Then we must know their causes. Thirdly we should know that it is possible to get rid of them, to gain liberation from them. Lastly we must know the truth of the path, the means by which we can gain freedom, the methods of practice that destroy the seeds of suffering from their very root. There are many elaborate ways of presenting the path, which has led to the development of many schools of Buddhism, such as the Hinayana and Mahayana, but to all schools the four truths are basic teachings. Each school has its own special methods, but all are based on the four truths. Without the four truths there is neither Hinayana nor Mahayana. All Buddhist schools see suffering as the main problem of existence and ignorance as the main cause of suffering. Without removing ignorance there is no way of achieving liberation from samsara and no way of attaining the perfect enlightenment of buddhahood.
What is ignorance? It is a wrong understanding of the self and of the nature of all phenomena. Buddhism talks a lot about the non-self or shunya nature of all things. This is a key teaching. The realization of shunyata, or emptiness, was first taught by Buddha, and then widely disseminated by the great teacher Nagarjuna and his successors, who explained the madhyamaka or middle way philosophy. Theirs is a system of thought free from all extremes, that is, they hold that the nature of how things actually exist is free from the extremes of absolute being and non-being. The things we usually perceive do not exist as we see them. As for the “I,” our understanding of its nature is also mistaken. This doesn’t mean that there is no person and no desire; when Buddha rejected the existence of a self he meant that the self we normally conceive is not existent. Yogis who have developed higher meditation have realized the true nature of the self and have seen that the “I” exists totally other than the way we normally conceive it. This is the emptiness of the self, the key teaching of the Buddha, the sharp weapon of wisdom to cut down the poisonous tree of delusion and mental distortion.
To use it we must first study it, then contemplate it, and finally investigate it through meditation. Then we can realize the true nature. That wisdom, realization of shunyata or emptiness, will cut the very root of all delusion and put an end to all suffering. It directly opposes the ignorance of not knowing correctly. Sometimes we can apply more specific antidotes—for example, meditating on compassion when anger arises, on the impurity of the human body when lust arises, on impermanence when attachment to situations arises, and so on. These antidotes can counteract particular delusions, but they cannot remove the root of delusion. To remove the root of delusion one must realize shunyata. The wisdom of shunyata is like a sharp ax having the power to cut the root of all distortion.
However, merely using it alone is not enough. An ax requires a handle and a person to swing it. Meditation on emptiness is a key practice, but it must be supported and given direction by the other methods. Wisdom must be supported by method. Many Indian masters including Dharmakirti and Shantideva have asserted this to be so. For example, meditation upon the four noble truths includes contemplation of sixteen aspects of these truths, such as impermanence, suffering, and so forth. Then, because we must share our world with others there are the meditations on love, compassion and the bodhimind, the enlightened attitude of wishing for enlightenment in order to be of greatest benefit to others. This introduces the six perfections, or the means of accomplishing enlightenment—generosity, discipline, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom. The first five of these must act as supportive methods in order for the sixth, wisdom, to become stable.
To obtain buddhahood the obstacles to the goal have to be completely removed. These obstacles are of two main types: obstacles to liberation, which includes the delusions such as attachment, and obstacles to omniscience. When the various delusions have been removed, one becomes an arhat. In Tibetan, arhat (Tibetan: gra-bCom-pa) means one who has destroyed (Tibetan: bCom) the inner enemy (Tibetan: gra), and thus has obtained emancipation from all delusions. However, this is not the attainment of buddhahood. An arhat is free from samsara and all misery and suffering; he no longer is prone to a rebirth conditioned by karma and delusion. At the moment we are strongly under the power of these two forces, being reborn again and again, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. We have little choice or independence in our birth, life, death, and rebirth. Negative karma and delusion combine and overpower us again and again. Our freedom is thus greatly limited. It is a circle: occasionally rebirth in a high realm, then in a low world; sometimes an animal, sometimes a human or a god. This is what is meant by ‘samsara.’ An arhat has achieved liberation from this circle. He has broken the circle and gone beyond it. His life has become totally pure, totally free. The forces that controlled him have gone, and he dwells in a state of emancipation from compulsive experience. His realization of shunyata is complete.
In the method side, the arhat has cultivated a path combining meditation on emptiness with meditation on the impermanence of life, karma and its results, the suffering nature of the whole circle of samsara, and so forth. But arhatship does not have the perfection of buddhahood. Compared to our ordinary samsaric life it is a great attainment, but the arhats still have a certain degree of subtle obstacles. The mental obstacles such as desire, hatred, ignorance and so forth have gone, but because they have been active forces within the mind for so long they leave behind a subtle hindrance, a kind of subtle habit or predisposition. Desire may have gone, but it leaves behind something very subtle in the mind. Or, although an arhat will not have anger, he may continue an old habit such as using harsh words. And he will have a very subtle self-centerdness. Similarly, arhats do not have ignorance or wrong views, but they do not see certain aspects of cause and effect as clearly as does a buddha. These kinds of subtle limitations are called the obstacles to omniscience. In buddhahood they have been completely removed. No obstacles remain. There is both perfect freedom and perfect knowledge.
With the ripening of wisdom and method comes the fruit of the wisdom and form bodies of a buddha. The form body has two dimensions, the samboghakaya and nirmanakaya, which with the wisdom body of dharmakaya constitute the three kayas. The form bodies are not ordinary form; they are purely mental, a reflection or manifestation of the dharmakaya wisdom. From perfect wisdom emerges perfect form. Buddhahood is endowed with many qualities: perfect body and mind, omniscient knowledge, power and so forth. From the perfection of the inner qualities is manifested a perfect environment, a ‘pure land.’ A buddha has a cause. His cause is a bodhisattva. Before attaining buddhahood one must train as a bodhisattva and cultivate a path uniting method with wisdom. The function of wisdom is to eliminate ignorance; the function of method is to produce the physical and environmental perfections of being. The bodhisattva trainings are vast: generosity, with which one tries to help others; patience, which keeps the mind in a state of calm; diligent perseverance, with which in order to help other sentient beings one joyfully undergoes the many hardships without hesitation; and many others.
As we can see from the above example, the bodhisattva’s activities are based on a motivation very unlike our ordinary attitudes, which are usually selfish and self-centered. In order to attain buddhahood one has to change one’s mundane thoughts into thoughts of love and compassion for other sentient beings. One has to learn to care all the time on a universal level. The self-centered attitude should be seen as an enemy; the loving and compassionate attitude should be regarded as the cause of the highest happiness, the real friend of both oneself and all others.
In the Mahayana we find a very special practice called “changing the self for others.” Of course, you can’t change you into me or me into you; this isn’t the meaning. What we must change is the thought or attitude of “me first” into the cherishing of others. “Whatever bad things must happen, let them happen to me.” Through meditation one learns to hold the self-centered attitude as the enemy and to transform self-cherishing into love and compassion, until eventually one’s entire life is dominated by these positive forces. Then everything one does becomes beneficial to others. All actions naturally become meritorious. This is the influence and power of the bodhisattva’s thought—the bodhimind, the inspiration to obtain enlightenment for the benefit of other sentient beings as a means to fulfill love and compassion.
Love and compassion have the same basic nature, but a different reference or application. Compassion is mainly in reference to the problems of beings, the wish to free sentient beings from suffering. On the other hand, love is in reference to the positive side, the aspiration that all sentient beings might have happiness and its cause. Our love and compassion should be equal toward all beings and have the intensity that a loving mother feels towards her only child, taking on ourselves the full responsibility for the well-being of others. A bodhisattva regards all sentient beings with that kind of attitude.
However, the bodhimind is not mere love and compassion. A bodhisattva sees that in order to free sentient beings from misery and give them the highest happiness he himself will have to be fully equipped, fully qualified. First he himself must attain perfect buddhahood, the state free of obstacles and limitations and possessed of all power and knowledge. Right now we cannot do much to benefit others. Therefore, for the benefit of other sentient beings we must obtain the enlightenment of buddhahood as soon as possible. Day and night everything we do should be in order to obtain perfect enlightenment quickly for the benefit of others.
The thought characterized by this aspiration is called bodhicitta, the bodhimind, the bodhisattva spirit. Unlike the self-centered, egotistical thoughts of ordinary people, that lead only to desire, hatred, jealousy, anger, and so forth, the bodhisattva way is dominated by love, compassion and the bodhimind. If we ourselves practice the appropriate meditative techniques, we shall become bodhisattvas. Then, as Shantideva has said, all our ordinary activities—sleeping, walking, eating or whatever—will naturally produce limitless goodness, fulfilling the purposes of many sentient beings.
The life of a bodhisattva is very precious, and therefore in order to sustain it one sleeps, eats and does whatever is necessary for staying alive. Because this is the motivation in eating, every mouthful of food gives rise to great merit, equal to the number of the sentient beings in the universe. In order to ascend the ten bodhisattva stages leading to buddhahood he engages both method and wisdom: on the basis of the bodhimind he cultivates the realization of shunyata, or emptiness. Seeing the emptiness of the self, his wrong grasping and attachments cease. He also sees all phemonena as being empty, and as a result all things that appear to his mind are seen like illusions, like a magician’s creations. The audience believes in a magician’s creations, but although the eyes of the magician see the same show as the audience does, his understanding of the spectacle is different from theirs. When he creates a beautiful woman, the audience experiences lust; when he creates terrible animals they become afraid. The magician also sees the beautiful woman and the animals, but he knows they are not real. He sees how they are manifest but knows that they are empty of existing as they appear. Their reality is not like their mode of appearance.
Similarly, the bodhisattva who has seen emptiness sees all as an illusion, and the events that previously had caused attachment or aversion to arise in him no longer are able to do so. As Nagarjuna said, “By combining the twofold cause of method and wisdom, the bodhisattva gains the twofold effect of the mental and physical dimensions (Sanskrit: kaya) of a buddha.” His accumulations of meritorious energy and wisdom bring him to the first bodhisattva stage, where he directly realizes emptiness and overcomes the obstacles to liberation. He then uses this realization through meditation to progress through the ten stages of a bodhisattva, eradicating all obstacles to omniscient knowledge. He first eliminates the coarse level of ignorance and then, through gradual meditation on method combined with wisdom, attains the perfect achievement.
The main subjects of this discourse—renunciation, emptiness and the bodhimind—were taught by Buddha, Nagarjuna and Tsong Khapa, and provide the basic texture of the Mahayana path. They are three keys for those who wish to obtain the enlightenment of buddhahood. In terms of method and wisdom, renunciation and the bodhimind constitute method, and meditation on emptiness is wisdom. These two are like the wings of a bird, enabling one to fly high in the sky of Dharma. A bird with one wing cannot fly. In order to achieve the high stage of buddhahood, the two wings of method and wisdom are required.
The principal Mahayana method is the bodhimind. To generate the bodhimind one must first generate compassion-the aspiration to free sentient beings from suffering, which becomes the basis of one’s motivation to obtain enlightenment. However, as Shantideva has pointed out, one must begin with compassion for oneself. One must want to be free of suffering oneself before being able to want it truly for others. The spontaneous wish to free oneself from suffering is renunciation. Most of us do not have this renunciation. We do not see the faults of samsara. We cannot ourselves continue being entranced by samsaric activities while speaking of working for the benefit of other sentient beings. Therefore one must begin with the thought of personal renunciation of samsara, a wish to obtain freedom from all misery. In the beginning this is very important. Then this quality can be extended to others, as love, compassion and the bodhimind. These two combine as method. When united with wisdom, realization of emptiness, one has all the main causes of buddhahood.
Of course, to develop these one must proceed step by step, and therefore it is necessary to study, contemplate and meditate. We should all try to carry out a daily meditation practice. Young or old, male or female, regardless of race, we all have the ability to meditate. Anyone can progress through the stages of understanding. The human life is very meaningful and precious, but it also can be lost to temporary goals like seeking sensual indulgence, fame, reputation and such things, which benefit this lifetime alone. Then we become like animals; we have the goals of the animal world. Even if we don’t make great spiritual efforts, we should at least try to get started in the practices that make human life meaningful.
Question: Could you clarify what you mean by removing the suffering of others?
Answer: We are not talking about temporary measures, like hunger or thirst. One can do acts of charity with foods, medical help and so forth, but these provide only superficial help. Giving can never fulfill the world’s needs and can itself become a cause of trouble or misery. What beings lack is some kind of perfect happiness or enjoyment. Therefore one cultivates a compassion for all sentient beings that wishes to provide them with the highest happiness, happiness which can last for ever. The practitioners, yogis and bodhisattvas consider this as the main goal. They practice giving temporary things as much as possible, but their main point is to produce a higher happiness. That is the bodhisattva’s main function.
Question: Buddhism believes strongly about past and future lives. How is this consistent with the idea of impermanence taught by Buddha?
Answer: Because things are impermanent they are changeable. Because impurity is impermanent, purity is possible. The relative truth can function owing to the existence of the ultimate truth. Impurity becomes pure, imperfect becomes perfect. Change can cause conditions to switch. By directing the way our life builds and develops, we can stop negative patterns. If things were not impermanent there would be no way to change and evolve.
In terms of karma and rebirth, impermanence means that one can gain control over the stream of one’s life. Our life is like a great river, never the same from one moment to the next. If we let negative sources flow into a stream it becomes dirty. Similarly, if we let bad thought, distorted perception and wrong action control our lives, we evolve into negative states and take a low rebirth. Alternatively, if we control the flowing of the stream skillfully we evolve positively, take creative rebirths and perhaps even attain the highest wisdom of buddhahood. Then the coming and going or imperfect experiences subside and the impermanent flow of the pure perfection comes to us. When that happens the human goal has been achieved.
Question: In the example of a stream of water, the content of the stream is flowing water, sometimes muddy and sometimes clear. What is the content of the stream of life?
Answer: Buddhism speaks of the five skandhas, one of which is mainly physical and four mental. There is also a basis which is a certain kind of propensity that is neither physical nor mental, a kind of energy. These five impure skandhas eventually become perfectly pure and then manifest as the five Dhyani Buddhas.
Question: What is the role of prayer in Buddhism? Does Buddhism believe in prayer, and if so, since Buddhists don’t believe in a God, to whom do they pray?
Answer: In Buddhism, prayer means some kind of wishing, an aspiration to have something good occur. In this sense a prayer is a verbal wish. The prayers of buddhas and bodhisattvas are mental and have great power. These beings have equal love and compassion for all beings. Their prayer is to benefit all sentient beings. So when we pray to them for help or guidance they have the power to influence us.
As well as these considerations, prayer produces a certain kind of buddha-result. Praying does not mean that personally you don’t practice at all, that you just leave everything to Buddha. That is not the case. The buddhas have to do something and we have to do something. The buddhas cannot wash away our stains with water, like washing clothing. The root of misery and suffering cannot be extracted like a thorn from the foot. The buddhas can only show us how to pull out the thorn. The hand that pulls it out must be our own. Buddha cannot transplant his knowledge into our being. He is like a doctor who diagnoses our illnesses and prescribes the cure that we must follow through personal responsibility. If the patient does not take the medicine or follow the advice, the doctor cannot help, no matter how strong his medicines or excellent his skill. A doctor must give medicine to a patient who will take it and follow his advice in order that his efforts will be successful. If we take the medicine of Dharma as prescribed and observe the supportive advices, we can easily cure ourselves of the diseases of ignorance, attachment and the other obstacles to liberation, and also the obstacles to omniscience. To turn to the Dharma but then not to practice it is to be like a patient burdened by a huge bag of medicine while not taking any. Therefore Buddha said, “I have provided the medicine. It is up to you to take it.”
Question: Sometimes in meditation one visualizes Buddha Shakyamuni. Did Shakyamuni himself visualize anything when he meditated?
Answer: What should we meditate upon? How should we meditate? Shakyamuni Buddha himself meditated in the same way as we teach: on subjects such as compassion, love, the bodhimind, the four noble truths, and so forth. Sometimes he also meditated on perfect forms, like that of a buddha or a particular meditational deity. These deities symbolize perfect inner qualities, and through meditation on them one is brought into proximity with the symbolized qualities. Both deity meditation and ordinary simple meditations tame the scattered, uncontrolled, elephant-like mind. The wild, roaming mind must be calmed in order to enter higher spiritual practices. Therefore, in the beginning one tries to stabilize the mind by focusing it on a particular subject. This is shamatha meditation. The main aim of this type of meditation is to keep the mind focused on one point without any wavering or fatigue, abiding in perfect clarity and peace for as long as one wishes without any effort.
As for the object to be visualized in this type of meditation, there are many choices: a piece of lamp, a statue, an abstract object, and so forth. Since the form of an enlightened being has many symbolic values and shares the nature of the goal we hope to accomplish, visualizing such an object has many advantages. But it is not mandatory; we can choose anything else. The main thing is to focus the mind on the object and not allow it to waver. Eventually one can meditate clearly and peacefully as long as one wishes, being able to remain absorbed for days at a time. This is the attainment of shamatha. When one has this mental instrument, all other meditation becomes far more successful.
At first when one tries this kind of practice one discovers one’s mind to be like a wild elephant, constantly running here and there, never able to focus fully on or totally engage in anything. Then little by little, through practice and exercise, it becomes calm. Even concentrating on a simple object like breathing in and out while counting will demonstrate the wildness of the mind and show the calming effects of meditation.
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