Developing Interest in Liberation and Enlightenment

We started our explanation of Atisha’s text and we saw that he was speaking about the stages with which we develop or progress as we go along the spiritual path. And we saw that one way of describing how we progress is that our scope or aim of our goal gets progressively greater. And this is described in terms of these three spiritual scopes or persons of three spiritual scopes. And then we spoke about the initial scope yesterday.

This word that Atisha uses for the three types of spiritual persons is quite interesting. It’s the word purusha in Sanskrit. Purusha is actually a technical term that appears in Hindu philosophy and it makes me wonder whether or not there’s a certain connotation to it from that. Because we have two categories in this Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy: there’s something called matter, primal matter, and then purusha as opposed to that. And purusha is speaking more about the mind that goes on from lifetime to lifetime, and so more like the person in terms of what goes on from lifetime to lifetime. That’s why I think that he’s not talking about individual people, but he’s talking about our state of mind as it progresses from lifetime to lifetime and as it progresses to enlightenment.

The initial scope is to be interested in gaining the happiness of samsara with rebirth, and this is mostly speaking about continuing to have a precious human life in future lives as well, not only in this life, so that we can continue on the path all the way up to liberation and enlightenment. Because the odds are that we’re not going to reach liberation or enlightenment in this lifetime, so we need to be able to continue in future lives as well.

That’s why, when we think in terms of following the entire path, even when we are on a Mahayana level or a tantra Mahayana level, still this initial scope is absolutely essential as a foundation, because we are going to need to have precious human life, the ability to continue our practice in the future as well. So if we don’t take measures now to insure our future lives, then we’re going to be in big trouble when we die. Because at the time of our death, if we haven’t reached liberation or enlightenment, which is most likely going to be the case, then we could feel, “Oh, this was all a big waste.”

But if we’ve made provisions for having continuing conducive circumstances in the future and it being even better circumstances, then we can feel, “In this lifetime I’ve taken a few steps in that direction, very good,” and “I’ll be able to continue,” and die with great peace of mind. It’s important not to look at this initial scope as just, “I want to be reborn in heaven, or a paradise, and everything is going to be so wonderful.” That’s not really the point of this initial scope.

Intermediate Scope

(4) Anyone with the nature to turn his or her back on the pleasures of compulsive existence and to turn back negative impulses of karma, and who takes keen interest in merely his or her own state of peace, is known as a person of intermediate spiritual scope.

The main point of the intermediate scope is that we want to get free completely from samsara, which means uncontrollably recurring rebirth, because we are just completely fed up with the whole cycle that repeats over and over again – of rebirth, all the problems of growing up, all the problems of making a living, all the problems of having to work very hard, and sickness, old age, death, and it just repeats over and over and over again and that really is very tiresome.

And if we look more closely what is always going on with samsara is that it’s going up and down. It’s not only going up and down in terms of different rebirths that we have, but from moment to moment it’s going up and down: sometimes you feel happy, then the next minute we feel unhappy. Our moods go up and down and our emotional states go up and down and we never know what’s coming next, which is what’s so horrible about it.

Now that point, that samsara goes up and down, is very important to remember while we’re following the spiritual path, because that is going to continue until we gain liberation, which means until we’re a completely liberated being as an arhat. So that means even when we’re a very, very advanced practitioner, but haven’t reached liberation yet, our experience is going to continue to go up and down. Sometimes we’re going to feel like practicing; sometimes we’re not going to feel like practicing. That is natural; that’s one of the characteristic features of samsara. Sometimes things will go well, sometimes they won’t and we’ll get sick or get hurt and so on. It’s natural, nothing surprising.

If we understand that, then we’re not discouraged when things go up and down, but we have this perseverance that just continues – it’s called “perseverance which is like a suit of armor – that’s not going to be discouraged when things go up and down, but just continue.

But at this stage of this intermediate scope, we say, “I really have had enough of this. I am completely not only tired of it and disgusted with it, I’m bored with it. It’s really boring and I really want to get out.” It’s when you get bored with samsara that you really start to do something about it. Then we develop what’s called “renunciation of samsara.” This is a special word that we really need to understand well. “Renunciation” – the Tibetan word for it means “to become firm.” It’s a determination, and what we become determined in is to turn away from samsara and all its unsatisfactory, unsatisfying features, and we become determined to get free of it.

So that means we become determined in giving up certain things. What we’re talking about giving up, or ridding ourselves of, are various problems that we have and the causes of these problems. This we want to get rid of, so we want to give it up, get out of it. We’re not talking about giving up neutral things like ice cream and so on; it’s not talking about that. We’re talking about certain states of mind and the experiences that they lead to that basically are disturbing and causing a lot of problems and that, “I’m really determined that I don’t want to continue that. I want to stop that, get out of that.” That means giving it up.

It’s relatively easy to give up watching television or ice cream; these are fairly trivial things, in a sense. But what we’re talking about here is giving up greed, giving up attachment, giving up anger. And you can’t just say, “Well, I give up being attached,” or “I stop being angry.” We have to really work very hard to rid ourselves of these disturbing states of mind. It’s not just a matter of discipline, “Well, I’m going to stop.” It means working very, very deeply to rid ourselves of these problems and the causes of them.

“What is really the cause of my greed, my attachment, my anger?” Go deeper. “Well, it’s insecurity.” “What’s the cause of insecurity? I want to give it up, I want to stop being insecure, which means I need to rid myself of what’s causing it.” Go as deeply as possible. That’s what is usually called “to abandon” these things, but that’s not quite the right word, it means to rid ourselves of them, get rid of them. When our minds are completely firm, no wavering here, but completely firm, “I’m determined to do this,” that’s the meaning of renunciation.

As we saw with safe direction or refuge, it’s a very important part of this determination here, this renunciation, that we are convinced that it’s possible to get rid of these things and that we are capable of it. It’s not just a nice dream that we don’t think is possible to actually fulfill. That’s why for all of this it’s very important to have a clear understanding of the nature of the mind, the mental continuum, that it’s not by nature stained by these things, that it’s actually possible to eliminate all the confusion and so on that’s causing the problems. That’s very essential; otherwise all of Buddhism just is a nice dream, a nice wish, but without any conviction that it’s possible to achieve the goals of Buddhism.

How does Atisha describe this intermediate scope? Atisha says that this is somebody that “turns their back on the pleasures of compulsive existence.” This means our ordinary type of happiness and to turn our back on that doesn’t mean that, “I’m never going to eat anything nice,” or “I’m only going to go around wearing clothes made out of coarse hair and walk barefooted and beat myself and stuff like that, because I don’t want to ever have any worldly pleasures.” It certainly doesn’t mean that.

But rather it means that, “Our worldly happiness, that’s not my ultimate goal,” because this type of worldly happiness has a lot of problems associated with it, because it doesn’t last and we never know when it’s going to end and we never know what we’re going to feel like afterwards. “I feel happy now, but in two minutes from now I could feel quite miserable. I’m having a nice time with you, but one minute from now I might get bored, or you might say something that I don’t like, and then I’m not happy anymore.” So there’s no guarantee of what’s coming next.

There’s no security with our ordinary type of happiness; this is what is unsatisfactory about it. And it is never going to eliminate our unhappiness completely. So it’s not enough. This is why we turn our back on that, “That’s not the ultimate goal that I’m looking for. If I have that worldly happiness, of course that can be a circumstance that’s conducive for practicing. If I’m not in complete pain all the time, then obviously I can help others more.” It’s a circumstance conducive for practicing and helping – very good health and so on. So we use this worldly happiness when we have it, but we’re not surprised when it ends.

Because of course it’s going to end. It’s the nature of samsara, it goes up and down. And when we feel unhappy as well, it’s not something that is going to make us stop practicing, because when we are having suffering, it can also be a helpful circumstance for appreciating and developing compassion for other people who suffer.

That’s one feature of this intermediate scope, to “turn your back on the pleasures of compulsive existence,” “This is not what I want as my ultimate aim.” And the next feature is somebody who “turns back negative impulses.” So the verb here is a different verb from what we have in the first part of this verse.

In the initial scope we had: when the impulses of karma to act destructively come up we’re going to restrain ourselves from acting them out. That was the initial scope, “I have the impulse to say something cruel to you, but I realize that that’s going to hurt your feelings and it’s going to build up negative habits in myself, and so I refrain from saying it.” That’s initial scope. Here, in the intermediate scope, we’re not just talking about not acting out negative impulses. We’re talking about turning them back, which means to eliminate the causes for these impulses to arise. So we want to go really as deeply as possible and discover the causes for these negative impulses.

And we discover it’s our confusion about reality – it’s usually called “unawareness” or “ignorance.” This unawareness of how we exist and how everybody exists is discussed more fully later on in the text. But if we describe it very simply, it’s basically a feeling that, “I’m a solid me that is separate from everything that’s happening and I have to always get my way.” We’re preoccupied with this seemingly solid me, “I’m the most important one in the world and anything that I don’t like, I have to destroy with anger. And anything that I like with greed I have to get it. And if I have it, I have attachment, I don’t want to let go.”

That causes us to act in compulsive, destructive ways. It even causes to act compulsively in constructive ways, “I’m compulsively trying to please you, because I want you to love me, because I’m so preoccupied with me that I think that everybody in the universe has to pay attention to me, but I’m going to be nice to you so that you will pay attention to me and love me.” This grasping for this solid me is what causes us to build up karma by acting either destructively or constructively, but in a compulsive type of way, in order to gratify this me.

This grasping for a solid me, this confusion, is also what causes the potentials of karma to ripen so that we experience the results of these things in terms of getting happy or unhappy and then we continue in our old ways. So here on the intermediate scope we want to turn that back. We want to get rid of these negative impulses so that they don’t arise, which means we want to rid ourselves of the causes of that, which is our confusion about how we exist. We renounce that, that confusion.

And the third characteristic is that they “take keen interest in merely their own state of peace,” “I want myself to get out of this.” We’re not really talking here about Theravada Buddhism, but this is the level of motivation which is “in common with Hinayana” – this is the way that it’s described from the Mahayana point of view. But you have to remember that it was the Mahayanists who made up the word “Hinayana.” It appears first in the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. It didn’t appear before.

Mahayana means “large vehicle,” “the great vehicle,” and Hinayana means “small vehicle,” so one could look at it as a derogatory term, Mahayana looking down on Hinayana, “We are so great and you’re so small.” But I think that we need to look at the word “yana” (vehicle) more in terms of Atisha’s presentation of the three scopes. It is a vehicle of mind that brings us to a goal – that’s what it means and, as in our discussion of these scopes, that vehicle of mind, as one who progresses along the spiritual path, becomes wider and wider, greater and greater in the scope of its aim.

So, Hinayana and Mahayana, these terms are referring then to levels of our own development as our spiritual scope broadens and I don’t think that it’s really fair to apply that term “Hinayana” then to talking about certain historical schools of Buddhism. I don’t think that that really is the most mature way of looking at the meaning of these terms. There are eighteen schools of Buddhism that developed, of which Theravada is one, and Mahayana is often contrasted with these eighteen schools, but the problem is that there’s no term for all eighteen of these, so “Hinayana” is used as the term to refer to all eighteen.

But in the context of Mahayana and particularly the lam-rim, it’s important to not really identify this Hinayana level of motivation with these historical schools, because certainly in these schools one has the practice of love and compassion and so on. And we would get the impression here that on the intermediate scope somebody is just totally selfish and only concerned with themselves. In the intermediate scope never is included teachings on love and compassion, although certainly in Theravada you have these teachings and practices.

But it is true that no matter how much love and compassion we have for others and no matter how much we try to help them, ultimately everybody has to understand reality for themselves and everybody has to rid themselves of the causes of their problems. Nobody can do that for anybody else. So it is very important to really work on getting rid of our own confusion, the source of our own problems.

And that’s very important and absolutely essential if we’re going to try to help others. Because if one just instantly from the beginning tries to follow the Mahayana path, this advanced scope, then although we might try to help other people, if we’re not working also to rid ourselves of our own confusion, then helping others could become a big ego trip. We become very attached to people that we’re trying to help and if they don’t take our advice or they don’t get better, we get angry with them. Then if it does work, we want them to like us and love us and thank us and all of this – a big ego trip.

So that’s going to make a big obstacle in really being able to help others. So we have to work on ourselves emotionally, not just work on our emotions in terms of developing love and compassion, but work on ourselves also to rid ourselves of attachment, anger, impatience, these sort of things. So intermediate scope is very necessary as a stage on the way to developing a stable Mahayana level of practice.

Bodhichitta as the Entranceway for the Advanced Scope

(5) Anyone who fully wishes to eliminate completely all the sufferings of others as the sufferings included in his or her own mental continuum is someone of supreme motivation.

On the intermediate scope we want to eliminate all the sufferings that are included or experienced on our own mental continuum, which means to get rid of the causes of suffering as well. And on the advanced scope we would “wish to eliminate completely...” completely means from the root, the causes and so on, “...completely all the sufferings of others,” as the same as our own sufferings.

In other words, we take them on, same as our own sufferings, and we would want to eliminate them in the same ways we would want to eliminate our own sufferings and their causes. So we appreciate that we’re all the same in that everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, and we are all the same in our experience of the problems of samsara – things going up and down, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and so on. And as Shantideva says, suffering needs to be removed not because it’s my suffering or because it’s your suffering. Suffering needs to be removed simply because it’s suffering and it hurts. Suffering has no owner.

It’s like if you live in an apartment building and you go out into the hall downstairs and there’s some paper or garbage on the floor, that paper or garbage is to be picked up and thrown away, not because I dropped it, not because you dropped it, but because it’s there on the floor and it needs to be cleaned up. That’s the way of thinking. You just pick up the paper and throw it away. There’s no big deal about that. It’s not that, “Oh, these terrible neighbors who are always dropping paper on the floor,” which is really thinking of me as being so holy and wonderful compared to them, and it’s not, “Oh, I always have to clean up after everybody,” which is also thinking of me or, “How wonderful I am and such an angel, I’m cleaning up.” Nothing like that. It’s just there. It’s on the floor, so naturally you pick it up, because it needs to be cleaned up. Everybody enjoys a clean hall.

So the same thing in terms of helping others to eliminate their problems. If somebody doesn’t understand something, or we don’t understand something, you explain; it doesn’t matter who the person is, you explain. If somebody needs help, you help, if it’s possible. This type of scope is when we are thinking in terms of helping everybody, not just a few people, not just the people that we like, but we would like to be able to eliminate everybody’s sufferings, everybody’s problems, the same as we would ourselves. So this is a huge scope. “And I’m not going to give up, but I’m going to continue trying to help everybody, so everybody becomes free of all their problems and so on.”

That means that with this scope, this advanced scope or supreme scope, we develop what’s called “bodhichitta” based on love and compassion – love is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes of happiness, compassion is the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering – and then the extraordinary wish, which is “I’m going to take responsibility to actually help them to achieve this,” and realizing that the only way that we’re going to fully be able to help others as much as is possible is to become enlightened, not just gain liberation. This is because if we are merely liberated from our problems and their causes, still our minds are limited.

We are a little bit like submarines under the water, looking out through a periscope. We’re only able to perceive what’s in front of the periscope, what’s in front of our eyes. Even though we don’t have any problems with what we perceive, still we can’t see what’s behind us. We can’t see the future effects of our behavior, we can’t see everything that’s come before that’s affected what’s happening now. Although we may be able to perceive more than ordinary people because we’re more highly developed, liberated and so on, still we’re viewing people in the universe through a periscope. It may be a very large one, but it’s still a periscope.

And so what we want to do is, “I’ve got to become enlightened, I’ve got to become a Buddha to get rid of this periscope vision to be able to perceive everything about everybody. So I want to get rid of not just the obscurations which are the disturbing emotions, what prevents liberation, but I want to get rid of the obscurations that prevent me from knowing everything, knowing everything in terms of karma and relations and if I teach you this, what effect is it going to have on you and so on – and not only what effect is it going to have on you, but what effect is that going to have then on everybody else that you interact with and then everybody else that they interact with... forever.”

That’s enlightenment, when we get rid of all those obscurations, no periscope whatsoever. Although we want to achieve this state – in that state we will be able to be of best benefit to everyone – nevertheless, we still realize that we can only help those who are receptive. A Buddha can’t just eliminate everybody’s suffering just by a Buddha’s own power, otherwise everybody would be free already. So we understand the reality of cause and effect, what actually are we able to do. So we have a realistic idea of how we’re going to be able to help others once we’re enlightened.

So when we talk about bodhichitta, the main intention that we start with is that, “I have got to be able to help others as much as is possible.” With that motivation then we look and we see, “Well, to be able to do that I need to become enlightened.” Bodhichitta is a state of mind which is focused on enlightenment; but it’s not focused on enlightenment in general or the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni. It’s focused on our own enlightenment that we will attain in the future, our own individual, specific enlightenment way further down on our mental continuum.

And with this intention that I’ve got to achieve this as soon as possible, because then I’ll really be able to help others as much as is possible. And this is very much based, it has to be with the confidence that that future attainment, that future enlightenment is possible for me to attain, that that is a possible state in the future of my mental continuum, and that it is totally possible for me to attain it. Without that, then it’s just a nice wish but it’s not practical, it’s not sincere. This is what bodhichitta is, it’s very important to have a clear understanding of it.

(6) For these hallowed beings who have come to wish for supreme enlightenment, I shall explain the perfect methods that the gurus have shown.

So for somebody, he calls them “hallowed,” sacred, which is really showing great respect, for somebody who really has that wish for that enlightenment, in other words, is aiming for their own enlightenment and working as hard as possible to achieve it because they want to be able to help others more, for those then, “I’ll explain the perfect methods” for achieving that enlightenment the way “that the gurus have shown,” in other words, I’m not just going to make it up. Such people are really worthy of respect. It’s not just that we show respect to other people who have achieved this, we show respect to ourselves in terms of our own potential to achieve that.