Taking the Path Seriously

What is most important in following the lam-rim graded path is to take it very, very seriously. Now, to take something seriously doesn’t mean to be grim and not being happy about it and not joke about it sometimes in the process of studying or laugh. It doesn’t mean that. But rather what it means is – if we’re to going to follow this spiritual path, then to have great respect for not only the path and those who have achieved it, but for ourselves.

And not to take it lightly but, “If I’m going to work on myself and follow this path, I want to do it right and correctly and in as best a way as possible.” This is based on really understanding the importance of it and the importance is not just based on “holy, holy lama” or “sacred, sacred” or like that. This is not an exercise purely in devotion.

But rather we look at our lives and we look at the lives of all the people around us, everybody that we know and even the people that we don’t know, the poor people we see in the streets and the street dogs. And we think of the people that just work and work and work and just hit more and more problems and eventually die. And everybody that we know, when we get to know them the better, we see that no matter how rich they might be or on the surface superficially happy all the time, everybody has their own brand of samsara, their own suffering. The problems are different; but there’s some standard problems – the aches and pains as you get older and all these sort of things. That is all terrible.

Is this all that there is to life? If that’s all that life is about, that’s really awful, isn’t it? But if it were possible to actually do something about that, if it’s really possible to get out of this state of existence, that would be really wonderful. And if everybody could get out of it, that would be even more wonderful. So we need to find out, is there a way to get out of it? Not just to be satisfied, to be in a flock of sheep that eventually our turn is going to come to be slaughtered. So we think, is there a way out? And if there is, is it really possible?

So first we take the situation seriously: this is what we see, this is what’s going on, “Do I want to just go on with this, or do I want to try to get out of it?” This is the first of the three paths that we’re talking about, renunciation. But when we talk about a path, what does that mean? We’re not talking about stones on a road that we’re walking, but what we’re talking about is a state of mind and a way of communicating and acting that follows from that state of mind that will act as a pathway to reach a goal. Here, our first goal is to get out of all of this.

As I say, we need to take that seriously. “If I can do this and go in this direction, that gives a meaning to my life. I’m doing something with my life, not just walking and walking around in a circle waiting until I die, just trying to get little happy experiences and stuff like that, which at first they’re nice, but they’re not really satisfying.” If they were, we wouldn’t want to repeat it over and over again. Also, after whatever joy we have wears off, we have no certainty of what we’re going to feel like next, or what’s coming next. So that’s not very satisfactory; it’s not very secure.

All the toys that we’ve collected in our lifetime and material things and so on, what’s that going to do at the moment of death? Not very much. They’re just pieces of paper with numbers written on them. We see this with many people that after they die, all their prized possessions instantly become garbage and are thrown away. So what was the point? Sure, it was nice, but is that all that life is about? Of course we need a nice environment; we need a conducive situation. But when we’ve satisfied the basic needs, we don’t need more. As the Tibetans say, you can only fill your stomach to its fullest; there is a limit to how much you can throw into yourself.

To really put our full energy into following this path, as I say, we need to take it seriously. So the preparation of course is very important, so that we have a proper state of mind to be able to actually work to develop these three pathway minds. Even more basic than the preparation is what we did at the very beginning, the motivation. Within that motivation, there’s the motivating feeling or emotion and there’s the motivating aim. But what is so important to be able to take the whole thing seriously is conviction that it’s possible to achieve that aim.

Of course we have to understand what that aim is – not just a nice word like “enlightenment” without really having a clear idea of what in the world does that mean. If we have that clear understanding of what is enlightenment, then we can develop this second pathway mind, which is bodhichitta – it’s aimed to achieve that. If we want to go on a journey and we don’t have a clear idea of where it is we’re going, then our chances of actually getting there are very slim, aren’t they? We may not even be going in the right direction on the road.

And to aim for that goal, we need to really, really understand not only what the goal is, but understand and be convinced that it’s possible to reach it, otherwise why make the journey? And to be convinced not only that it’s possible to achieve that goal, but that I personally am capable of reaching that goal. Although many of us get involved in Buddhism and the Buddhist practice, we haven’t really looked very, very deeply into, “Do I really think it’s possible to achieve enlightenment? Because if it’s not possible, what in the world am I doing here? Why am I sitting down to try to meditate and torturing my knees?”

In order to be convinced that it’s possible to achieve enlightenment, then we need this third pathway of mind, the understanding of voidness or reality. When we talk about these three principal pathways of the mind – sure, there’s a graded order in which we develop them: first renunciation, then bodhichitta, then the understanding of voidness. Particularly if you’re going to write a text and lead people along a path of development, you can only speak about and practice one at a time. But nevertheless, once we get a general idea of these three, then we have to put them together and go back to the very beginning and from every tiny step onwards try to apply all three.

Starting from reaffirming our motivation, look at the motivation: we need to renounce the suffering situation that we’re in and everybody else is in, which means that, “I’m willing to give it up, because it’s not only disgusting and terrible, it’s really boring. It’s just walking around and around in a circle. We head to one problem after another, one unhealthy relationship after another, one episode of getting angry after another. And it just goes on and on and repeats and repeats and repeats. How utterly boring!”

Then, when we’re going to turn away from that and we’re willing to give it up and we’re determined to be free of it – that’s renunciation – then we turn to, “What do I want to achieve? What’s the aim? What’s the goal?” Not just to get out of it. We think of the aim just as if the aim itself is to get out of it, but the aim really is to reach enlightenment to help everybody else to get out of it – that’s bodhichitta. To aim for it, we have to be convinced that it’s possible to actually achieve it.

For that we need the understanding of voidness, that all these fantasies and projections and things that are causing all my problems, all of that’s not referring to anything real, “I always have this fantasy,” that’s projecting, “that there’s going to be a Prince or Princess Charming on the white horse and they’re going to be an absolutely perfect partner for me, that they’re going to complement me in every way and the only thing they’re interested in life is me, me and complementing me, and giving me every moment of their time and attention. And they are absolutely perfect.”

Either we haven’t found somebody, so we’re constantly trying to find somebody like that, and even if we’ve found a partner, we’re always expecting them to be like that and we get really annoyed when they’re not acting like that. This is a fantasy. This is not referring to anything real. This is no different than believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. This is a nice fairy tale for children, but sorry, scusa, this is not referring to reality.

This is our unawareness, our ignorance. Because this is not referring to anything real, there’s no basis for this belief. So it doesn’t hold up, it doesn’t stand up to any investigation. So it’s something that can be eliminated. Well, that’s a very superficial way of looking at it, nevertheless a good way to start. We need to start somewhere, so with this much understanding, then we can start to think, “Well, maybe it’s possible to get rid of my confusion that is causing all my problems. I may not understand on a very deep level how that affects continuing from one lifetime to another lifetime and going around in a circle like this... but actually, do I really believe in rebirth?”

This is not an easy issue. When we talk about achieving this goal or this aim, just with this initial step, with motivation, trying to apply these three principal pathways even just here, how seriously do we take the presentation of it? What are we renouncing? It’s not just the problems of this lifetime, Tsongkhapa makes it quite clear that the first stage of renunciation is meditating for a better rebirth. “But hey, I don’t believe in rebirth, or I don’t understand it, so what do I do now?”

And then we go a few lines further and it says that we’re aiming to get rid of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, over and over and over again. “Well, how can I aim for that if I’m very unsure about this whole issue of rebirth?”

And then we go a little bit further and we want to help everybody else get out of uncontrollably recurring rebirth – that’s why we want to achieve enlightenment, right? So, “What am I aiming for? Wouldn’t it be a little bit nicer to just say ‘I just want to get rid of all my psychological and emotional problems in this lifetime and really be able to really help everybody now? Can’t we just do without this rebirth business here? Because I’m really not sure about that. I don’t feel comfortable with that. OK, renunciation, bodhichitta, understanding of voidness. Let’s apply it within these limitations of just this one lifetime.”

If we examine ourselves honestly, even if we’re convinced that we can actually do it in this lifetime – this is really what they’re talking about in the texts – are we comfortable with that? If everybody is talking about rebirth here in the standard texts, is it really appropriate to just say, “Well I don’t like that piece, so let’s throw that away?” “If I can throw out that piece because I don’t particularly like it, what about some of the other pieces?” Do we throw them away as well? So, what conclusion are we drawn to here?

The conclusion is that if we take this whole thing seriously and take ourselves seriously, then we have to take what Buddha said seriously. He was talking about this rebirth, in fact, it seems to appear almost everywhere in the teachings, “So maybe that’s something that I should try to understand. Maybe it’s important.” This, I think, is a very major step, an important step that we need to make, because there are many things in the teachings that don’t sit very well in our Western mentality. These are things that we need to decide, “Well, I have to examine and really try to understand what in the world is going on here and not just accept a superficial level of it.”

And then, like on my website, I have an article and I speak in various places about Dharma-Lite versus the Real Thing Dharma, like Coca-Cola Light and the Real Thing Coca-Cola. Dharma-Lite is when we have this idea, “Well, let’s leave out rebirth and all this stuff; that isn’t the real thing. Let’s just do Dharma within the context of this lifetime. Basically, if we’re honest with ourselves, all we want to do really is make our samsara a little bit better.” That’s Dharma-Lite. Now, there are two versions of Dharma-Lite. One version says, “That’s it. The other stuff is just superstition for Asian people and that’s not really good for you. It has caffeine and it has sugar and stuff like that. Dharma-Lite, that’s the best thing.”

But the other version of Dharma-Lite, which I think is much more acceptable, is that if we say, “OK, I acknowledge that rebirth and all these issues are very important in the Dharma. And I also acknowledge that I really don’t understand it very well and I realize that, especially for rebirth, I’m going to have to understand what takes rebirth and voidness and the whole teachings about the voidness of the self and all these other things. Because unless I understand that...

“I really have to understand what in the world they’re talking about in Buddhism when they talk about rebirth. It’s certainly not some soul that flies from one body to another; that’s not at all what they’re talking all about. So I’m going to follow Dharma-Lite as a stepping stone, just one stage along the way. In other words, I take myself seriously and really, at this stage of my development, the only thing that I can really be sincere about is trying to work within the context of this lifetime – sincerely – that’s the only thing that really deeply within my heart I can put my energy and feelings into.

“To say, I’m aiming to get liberation from rebirth and help everybody get out of rebirth, that’s just words to me now. I can’t really feel that and so I don’t want to pretend. I don’t want to pretend, because I really don’t feel that. I really don’t even understand it, so at this stage I’m going to work within the context of what I can handle emotionally and intellectually, because I want to be sincere about what I’m doing. I take this whole thing seriously, but I fully acknowledge that this is just a stage; this isn’t the final way of practicing.”

And, “I’m really going to try to understand some of these more difficult aspects, starting with rebirth, because that really is very, very central; it comes everywhere – the precious human life, that we have beginningless life, all of that and we’re going to die and then we’re reborn – it’s absolutely everywhere in the teachings. Now, beginningless lives and that this is this rare opportunity that we have now, it doesn’t make any sense without rebirth; that’s all based on rebirth. So I’m really going to try to understand it.

“Even if we’ve gone through studying these three principal paths, now let’s go back and start to apply some of it to deal with these major issues, because really, how much have I understood?” And, “I really do take it seriously that it will be a graded spiritual path. And I’m looking ahead at the next steps that I want to take and that I need to take. So like that, I’m practicing Dharma-Lite now, because this is what I can handle now and I’m looking now ahead at the rest.” And that’s perfectly fine: Dharma-Lite is appropriate, the appropriate drink.

So, this is what I wanted to discuss this evening in our first meeting. Because, as I say, then that sets the tone of, “OK, this is the level that I’m at. Either I’m a newcomer or I’ve studied for a while and I take it seriously and this is the context that I see where I’m at now and what I’m doing.” Because if we’re going to try to apply all of this stuff into our daily lives, we have to be sincere about it. It has to be something that we really feel, and feel on a secure basis.

Not based on pretending to be so wonderful and so high and, “I’m working to liberate all sentient beings.” “Am I really working to free every cucaracha, every cockroach in the universe from uncontrollably recurring rebirth? Is that really what I sincerely feel from the depth of my heart?” We start to question that, “Because every cucaracha has been my mother in a previous lifetime.” Really, how sincere are we about that? We want to free them all because they’ve all been our mothers in previous lives?

If we realize the full context of what we’re doing and are sincere and honest about “what level am I on now,” then – as we apply all of this in our daily lives – it starts to have some result, it has some effect.

And it’s very important to be realistic about it. One of the most general characteristics of samsara is that it goes up and down. And this is going to continue until we become liberated as an arhat – that’s a long time from now. So, sometimes we’re going to feel like practicing, sometimes we’re not. Sometimes it’s going to go well, sometimes it’s going to go not so well. What do we expect from samsara?

It’s not that we do the practice and with every mantra we say it gets better and better and better. No way is that going to happen in a linear fashion. If we are realistic about that, and even when things are not going well, which we should expect is going to happen, then we just continue. It doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. I just want to sustain my effort, then that’s far more stable. We can only do that on the basis of being really sincere and honest about where we’re at.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, don’t judge your progress based on just a short term period, but look over several years of time. And if the general trend of the way we were, say three or five years ago and the way we are now has improved, even though day to day it might go up and down, then we know that something has been effective. Don’t ever expect miracles.

So, maybe we have a little time for a few questions.

Question: I’m a newcomer, but I want to ask you what you meant when you said, “Don’t expect miracles?”

Answer: A miracle would be you say the magic words, the magic mantra, or the magic practice and then, all of a sudden, all your problems are gone. We would be able to actually get rid of all our recurring problems and so on without putting in a great deal of work and effort and easy. Or that some outside force is going to save us; we don’t have to do anything ourselves. Those are miracles. Generally, they don’t happen. That’s something very central in Buddhism: things don’t happen without a cause.

Question: In the time of the Buddha, were there all these teachings and aspects of the path to enlightenment that helped him with his own enlightenment?

Answer: That’s a difficult question to answer in a way that we can easily chew on and digest. The point is that... I can give you the answer, but the answer might not be very satisfactory for you: Buddhism speaks in terms of mental continuums that have no beginning. And to understand that, you have to get into the whole discussion of cause and effect. And how can continuities have an absolute beginning? And that continuities that change from moment to moment can’t just start from nothing, have an absolute beginning.

Because if you say that someone created it, some greater power created it – Well, did that great power have a beginning? Or no beginning to that – So you’re still left with no beginning. Or that there was nothing before – Well, did that nothing have a beginning? – Well, no, it was always there. So, no matter which way you try to solve the puzzle, there’s no way around having to ultimately face the issue of no beginning. From that point of viewthere was no first Buddha and because of that, the teachings and the method were always available.

As I say, that’s not a very easy answer to understand or accept, but that’s the question. It wasn’t that Buddha went to some other Buddha who was around at the time and learned it. Buddha had teachers of course, but primarily, the teachers that he studied with, he decided that what they were teaching wasn’t deep enough, so that he sat down and he figured it out himself. Well, did he just make it all up? That is not a satisfactory answer from a Buddhist point of view, although we could look at it that way as Westerners and say, “He figured it out. He was a genius.”

From the Buddhist point of view you would say, “Well, in previous lives Buddha had studied these things with teachers who were around at that time. Now these ideas, this understanding came to him based on cause – that he had studied these things before – and now it finally made sense to him.”

Any question in Buddhism, when you start to look at it, you can get superficial answers. And then you start to investigate deeper and deeper and everything starts to get more and more profound. Were there always electric light bulbs? And so the person who invented the electric light bulb had learned how to do it in some previous life? Is this what we’re talking about?

We investigate. You don’t just accept some explanation. You try to see, “Well, does it make sense?” So, as I say, this question can lead one deeper and deeper and deeper into the whole question of knowledge, and how we know anything. Does it come from a cause or not? That’s the basic question.

I’m answering this way on purpose, because what I want to demonstrate is that you ask a question and you get an answer and the answer might sound very simple, “Oh yeah, Buddha figured it out. He was smart and he worked real hard and he figured it out.” But never be satisfied with these type of answers. It’s the same thing as Dharma-Lite, “OK, well, this I can deal with now, I can accept that answer. Fine, I’m happy with that.” But be aware that there are much deeper explanations to it that are far, far more complex and involve many, many more issues with any point.

“So when I reach another level of understanding, I can ask that question again and look at it on a deeper level.” That’s the point I want to make. A very important thing in the Dharma: never be satisfied with our level of understanding until we’ve reached a super, super level of realization. We can always understand it on a deeper level. There is always another deeper level. If you look at the greatest Buddhist teachers among the Tibetans – and they could already be very old – they’re still going to teachings with even greater masters. They’re still learning more, they’re still working to make progress, to go deeper.

Just one last word, one last example. Trijang Rinpoche, the late Junior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, often said when he was an old man, regarding the Grand Presentation of the Graded Path to Enlightenment, “I’ve read the book hundreds of times and every time I read it, I get a deeper understanding of it.” He read it several hundred times in his lifetime – that’s the way to study the Dharma.