Conviction in the Dharma

Review of the Main Points of the Lam-rim

The lam-rim is divided into three scopes, each with different states of mind that act as pathways enabling us to reach enlightenment. This structure was first formulated by the great eleventh-century Indian master Atisha, who was instrumental in bringing the Dharma to Tibet from India for the second time. He presented his teachings in a text called Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Skt. Bodhipatha-pradipa).

We can trace the Kadam tradition back to Atisha. Over time, it fragmented and was reformed by Tsongkhapa, whereby it became the Gelug tradition. The Kadam tradition has influenced the other traditions too, because the lojong, or mind training teachings are broadly taught and primarily come from the Kadam lineages. Another example of Kadam influence can be seen with Gampopa, from whom so many of the Kagyu traditions evolved, who is known as a great master who combined the streams of Kadam and Mahamudra.

Atisha derived the idea of this scheme for the lam-rim from a line in Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (I.4), where he wrote,

Having gained this body with respites and enrichments, so hard to find, which can fulfill the wishes of every being, if, in this lifetime, I don’t actualize its benefits, when later will a perfect endowment with one come?

Every person, as Atisha elaborates, refers to the three levels of people from the three scopes.

The initial scope covers the topics of a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher, our precious human rebirth, death and impermanence, the sufferings of the three worse realms, refuge or safe direction, the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, a discussion of karma and avoiding destructive behavior.

The intermediate scope presents the sufferings of the three higher realms of rebirth, and the sufferings of samsara or uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether. It includes a presentation of the disturbing emotions, the mental factors within the context of the four noble truths, and the true cause of suffering. We also have a more specific, detailed explanation of the 12 links of dependent arising, and how our disturbing emotions actually generate the first noble truth, true suffering. Then we are presented with the three higher trainings in ethical self-discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness, as the means to get out of samsara and attain liberation. In addition, there’s a discussion of monastic and householder vows included in terms of higher ethical self-discipline. All of this falls within the whole mental framework of renunciation (the determination to be free) and constitutes the intermediate scope of motivation.

For the advanced scope, we have teachings on the various methods for developing a bodhichitta aim. There is the 7-part cause and effect meditation, beginning on the basis of equanimity and first recognizing everyone as having been our mothers. The second method is to equalize and exchange the attitude we have towards the self and others, including the practice of “tonglen,” giving and taking. Tsongkhapa presented an 11-part meditation procedure for combining these two ways of developing the bodhichitta aim. There is also the presentation of taking the bodhisattva vows, and an explanation of them. We have the practice of the 6 far-reaching attitudes, with a very extensive presentation of how to achieve far-reaching mental stability or concentration through the attainment of shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind. The elaboration of far-reaching discriminating awareness is presented in terms of the teachings on how to develop vipashyana, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. All of this is within the advanced scope of teachings.

We can see from this quick survey that the lam-rim teachings encompass a huge amount of material, all of which would fall within the sphere of the sutra teachings if we divide in terms of sutra and tantra. Some level of proficiency in all of these areas is an absolute prerequisite for the practice of tantra, a point that all Tibetan traditions agree on.

The Points Covered in the Lam-rim Are Found in All Tibetan Traditions

It’s impossible to go into detail on every single point as I just enumerated them, and there are many other texts that present the material in various lengths and with different amounts of scriptural quotations from Indian sources to support the teachings and instructions. The largest version was written by Tsongkhapa and is called Lam-rim chen-mo, or Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path, where he provides an incredible amount of precise detail concerning shamatha and vipashyana. The Fifth Dalai Lama’s version gives a great deal of personal guidelines on the meditations. There are many variants and each text will have special individual features.

It’s important to know that all of the material covered in the lam-rim is found in all the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The only difference is the way that the presentation is structured. For instance, Gampopa has two ways of presenting his material. In his Jewel Ornament of Liberation, he divides it in terms of the cause, namely the discussion of Buddha-nature, and then goes on to present the precious human life as the supporting basis, relying on the spiritual teacher as the condition, and the guru’s instructions as the method. All of it is geared toward the same things we have in the lam-rim, with the goals of improved rebirth, liberation, and enlightenment. Gampopa then structures the methods in terms of overcoming the four hindrances, which is reminiscent of the Sakya presentation of the same material in terms of “Parting from the Four Clingings.” In his other way of formulating the material, Gampopa gives the presentation of what is referred to as the “Four Dharmas of Gampopa.”

In the Drigung Kagyu tradition, we have presentations that organize the material in terms of basis, path, and result, and we find something similar in the Sakya tradition called “The Three Visions.” There are impure vision, the vision of experience, and pure vision. Some presentations combine the four Dharmas of Gampopa with the three scopes, and others combine it with the four clingings. Another example is Patrul’s text, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, where he speaks of outer preliminaries and inner preliminaries. It all covers the same material, so we shouldn’t have any sectarian view thinking that the version we study is the only one, or the best. Some of the quotations from Indian sources might be slightly different, and some of the personal instructions for meditation might be slight different. But primarily, it’s all the same.

The Three Types of Belief in Facts

We’ve seen that it’s possible to understand the lam-rim within the context of the four noble truths, and that it’s utterly essential to be convinced of the goals, if we’re really going to be able to develop ourselves according to the Real Thing Dharma. We can derive this certainty from two things. One is the three types of what is usually translated as “faith.” I think a better translation would be “belief in fact,” because we’re not talking about faith that the stock market will get better tomorrow, or something else we can’t know. We are talking about belief in something that is true, not just faith in something that is impossible to understand.

First we have a purifying type of belief, which is something that purifies or settles the mind of any disturbing attitude toward it. For instance, it calms the mind down from indecision, doubt, and fear. The fear could concern enlightenment, when we feel, “Who could possibly do this?” Or we could get attached and think, “Wow, this is amazing, I want it for me, me, me!” Purifying belief calms all of this down, and is gained on the basis of the second type of belief, which is confidence based on reason. In other words, the goal of achieving liberation and enlightenment is reasonable. It’s logical and it makes sense and it isn’t irrational or impossible. The third type is belief with an aspiration, where we believe it to be possible and that we are capable of achieving it, and so we aspire to attain it.

From these three types of belief in fact, we can see that it’s essential to be convinced that the goals are reasonable, that it’s possible to attain them, and that we are each individually able to attain them. In gaining this confidence, our minds become calm and have no fears or doubts or exaggerations, nor do we get jealous of others who have achieved the goals, or become arrogant about our own achievements.

The Sixteen Aspects of the Four Noble Truths

Another facet of the teachings that underlines the importance of conviction is the study of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. We already spoke about an arya, or a “noble being,” that is, someone who has non-conceptual cognition of voidness (emptiness). Actually it’s not just of voidness, but the non-conceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. I’m not going to list them here, there are four for each of the truths, but it’s important to study and have confidence in them. We need conviction in the fact that true stopping is possible, that the true cause of suffering is unawareness, and that the pathway minds will really get rid of the causes of suffering forever. The sixteen aspects explain all of this and help us to build confidence.

Conviction in True Stoppings and True Pathway Minds As the Basis for Safe Direction (Refuge)

I’m mentioning all of these details to illustrate the importance and benefit of trying to integrate aspects of the Dharma teachings into our lives. Doing so will reinforce and deepen our understanding of any individual point within the Dharma. If we really take refuge – in other words, if we really put the safe direction in our lives that is indicated by the Three Jewels (Three Precious Gems): Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – then we’ll actually want to go in that direction.

What is the direction of the Dharma Jewel? It’s the third and fourth noble truths, or the true stopping and the true pathways of mind on the mental continuum of an arya. We should know this definition. The third and fourth noble truths don’t just exist by themselves up in the sky, they are actually on the basis of our mental continuums. It’s the stopping, the permanent removal of suffering and its causes from a mental continuum, hopefully ours. The pathway minds are the understanding that will bring this about. The Buddhas (the Buddha Jewel) are those who have achieved these true stoppings and true pathway minds in full. The arya Sangha (the Sangha Jewel) has achieved them in part, but not in full.

How seriously do we actually take refuge? Is it just blah blah blah, where we cut a piece of hair and get a Tibetan name? Or what are we taking refuge in, the Easter Bunny? Refuge is a safe direction, so we have to take refuge in something we believe exists. We need to be confident that there are such things as true stoppings and true pathway minds, that there are those who have achieved them, and that we too can achieve them. We need confidence that there are graded stages of how to achieve them and the Buddha actually taught those. We’ll decide to go in that direction when we’re certain it’s something that actually exists. Then, when we add in bodhichitta, we’ll aim to go all the way to becoming Buddhas ourselves to benefit everybody.

Initially, refuge is within the context of liberation. When we repeat a Tibetan verse of motivation, first taking refuge or safe direction from the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha all the way to liberation; and then, by the positive force of giving and so on, achieving enlightenment for the benefit of all. The first part has to do with aiming for liberation. The second part, bodhichitta, is aiming for enlightenment. We need to go through these stages.

So, the whole basis of becoming a person of the initial, then intermediate, then advanced scopes is dependent on a very confident belief that these goals are possible to achieve. Here is the path that will lead to gaining confidence in that. Everything within the lam-rim has to be understood within this context of aiming for liberation or enlightenment. This is what makes any practice a Buddhist practice within the context of safe direction, because what distinguishes Buddhism from non-Buddhism is refuge. If we leave that out, the initial scope looks almost like any other religion. We want to get better rebirths, or we want to go to heaven. That’s not specifically Buddhist!

Safe Direction in the Three Precious Gems Sets Buddhism Apart

There are many Buddhist practices shared in common with non-Buddhist traditions. Renunciation, the determination to be free of worldly existence, is found throughout various traditions, and there are complete instructions for achieving shamatha and vipashyana in many of the Indian non-Buddhist traditions. They might not have the focus on voidness, but they certainly have the methods for achieving those states of mind. Then, there are Hindu versions of tantra working with the chakras, channels and energies, just like in Buddhism.

What makes any of these a Buddhist practice? Is it love and compassion? No, because we find that in almost every other religion. Is it relying on a spiritual teacher? No, as that is also found in many other traditions. Is it following ethical discipline? No. Is it becoming a monk or nun? No. Is it doing rituals or pujas? No, we find all of this in other religious systems.

So, what makes it Buddhist? We can read the answer in every text – it’s the safe direction of refuge. That’s not a trivial statement. It’s not about saying that “my Buddha is better than your god,” it’s about safe direction and the third and fourth noble truths, the true stopping of suffering based on getting rid of its causes forever, and the true pathway minds that will lead to it. In other words, true liberation.

While other Indian religions might talk about liberation, from the Buddhist point of view it’s not complete liberation because practitioners of these systems are still left with some disturbing emotions and problems their understanding has not dispelled. Our belief that what Buddha taught is true can't simply be based faith in the Buddha: they're true because Buddha said they are true. Our belief needs to be based on rational conviction the liberation Buddhas indicated is true liberation. This conviction thus needs to be based on reason in such a way that our minds are purified of disturbing attitudes toward it. It’s not that our liberation is better than their liberation. We’re not arrogant about it or attached to it. We don’t have doubts about it, not in terms of being stubborn and close-minded, but we’re also not sectarian or jealous of others or trying to compete with anyone else. We have the third type of belief, which is belief in fact with an aspiration that it’s possible and we’re going to do it. Then everything within the lam-rim starts to make sense.

Examining Our Own Motivation

We need to check our own motivation to see if we have a Dharma-Lite approach. Are we trying to improve just this lifetime through Dharma methods, or are we thinking about future lives? Do we have any idea of what enlightenment actually means and whether it’s possible?

If Dharma-Lite is our drink, then there is no guilt or judgment about that. It’s absolutely fine. It’s where the vast majority of Westerns start, and have to start, with coming from our backgrounds. If we are working with Dharma-Lite then it’s really important to know that Real Thing Dharma is something different, and we should respect it. We should hope that in the future we’re able to deal with Real Thing Dharma. If we go back to our analysis of motivation, we need to be certain of the three Real Thing goals.

A further step is that we have some actual emotional feeling that draws us to want to achieve these goals. We might believe that better rebirths, liberation and enlightenment are possible, but have an awful lot of resistance to actually working for any of them. So once we understand that it’s possible to achieve all three, we need to work on our emotional driving forces that will make us get off our behinds and do something to attain them. In order to transform from Dharma-Lite to Real Thing Dharma, we therefore need to work on two dimensions. One is understanding and the other is the emotional aspect, neither of which can be ignored. Both are equally important.

Who Are We and What Do We Want?

The terminology used in the lam-rim is significant, when we talk about “persons.” What kind of person are we? Are we a person who is just concerned with wealth, love and so on in this lifetime? Are we a person who is really thinking in terms of future lives and ensuring that they’re not going to be worse, so that we have opportunities to continue our spiritual development? Are we a person working to overcome all suffering and gain liberation?

Remember that liberation is liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, while Dharma-Lite liberation is just liberation from uncontrollably recurring problems in this life. Are we aiming for enlightenment to benefit absolutely everyone, every single individual in the universe? This includes all insects, equally! That is vast. That’s what we call “Mahayana,” a vast vehicle of mind. These aims define what kind of person we are, and that’s significant. Working toward these goals certainly shapes our lives much more fully than our nationality, occupation or gender. What lam-rim deals with is what kind of person we are.

So we have to ask ourselves these types of questions, to see what it is that shapes our life. If we don’t, then our study of Dharma becomes like studying anything, and it’ll just become something interesting and maybe a little bit useful, like learning how to fix a car. That might be fun and useful sometimes, but it won’t shape our whole life. What does shape our lives is working to become these three types of persons in a graduated order.

Being Honest with Ourselves

I’m reminded of a line from the lojong teaching Seven Point Mind Training, where Geshe Chaykawa lists as one of the ways to measure our success in training our mind, “If, from the two witnesses, I take the main.” That means that of those who can witness and evaluate our level of motivation and spiritual development, namely others or ourselves, the one who really knows is ourselves. We know if we’re honest with ourselves. Are we really working to liberate every insect in the universe or not, when we so easily recite, “May I attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.” Who are we kidding? Does anyone actually mean that or think about what it really means? We’re the ones who are best able to evaluate ourselves. We need to do this without guilt or judgment on the one hand, and without complacency on the other hand, where we think, “Okay, that’s where I’m at, and that’s it. I’m an angry person with a bad temper, so everybody has better get used to it.” Rather, we try to cultivate the attitude, “This is where I’m at now, but I’d like to try to go further."

But what happens when we have questions like “Am I ready to do this type of practice?” Is this something appropriate to ask our teachers, or can we really evaluate it ourselves? Of course we can ask the advice of our teachers, and no one would say that we shouldn’t consult them. But, “Have I overcome my selfishness?” Do we ask somebody else or do we evaluate ourselves?

Then, it becomes a little more complex. Sometimes we aren’t really aware of how we’re interacting with others and so need feedback, even if it can be hard to find someone to be objective. We could ask, “Have I been acting selfishly in our relationship?” and the other person might have his or her own emotional agenda. Ultimately, we are the best judge of whether we’ve been acting selfishly or not. Based on our own feelings or feedback from others, then we evaluate ourselves. It’s easier to be objective about ourselves than others, because we know ourselves better.

Overcoming Emotional Resistance to Change

But, as mentioned already, even if we want to change and improve ourselves, we often encounter emotional resistance. To overcome that, we need to delve more deeply into our analysis of the confusion behind this resistance and try to uncover what is causing it. If we leave our analysis on the level that is common to all Indian schools of Buddhism, the confusion is our belief in a self-sufficiently knowable “me.” This confusion is what offers resistance, and so we need to start deconstructing this “me.” This is a “me” that can be known all by itself, as in, “I don’t want to achieve enlightenment; I don’t want to help others.” It seems as if there’s a “me” all by itself that doesn’t want to practice.

Is it a mind that doesn’t want to practice? Or is it laziness? What exactly is it? We think in terms of “me,” as in, “I don’t want to practice,” but this “me” is just imputed onto a mind that contains laziness, fear, insecurity and other mental factors. If we want to refer to this whole complex of a mind and mental factors, emotions and insecurities, we can refer to it in terms of “me.” It really feels like “I” don’t want to practice.

But this “me” doesn’t exist all by itself, but can only be known in the context of these other things. In order to change the situation and overcome our resistance to practice, if we’re thinking of ourselves in terms of a self-sufficient, knowable “me,” then somehow we need to stop that “me” from resisting. It’s as if we could yell at ourselves, “Come on, stop acting like that,” or punish and force ourselves to practice. That doesn’t work. That’s based on a misconception of “me.”

So, it’s important to aim our antidotes correctly, not at a self-sufficiently knowable “me,” because that doesn’t exist. We need to aim the antidotes at the various mental factors and disturbing emotions on which the “me” is labeled. So we have to use the perfect Dharma methods to work on our fear, laziness, insecurity and so on that have become the basis for labeling a “me” that doesn’t want to practice. Once we’ve dispelled them, then we find a basis for labeling a “me” that wants to practice with enthusiasm and so on. This is how we can apply voidness analysis. It’s not so intellectual or difficult; it’s just a matter of understanding what they’re talking about and how to apply it in a practical manner.


Who are we and what do we want? It’s actually not an easy question, and it requires us to spent time examining ourselves honestly. Whether we end up happy with Dharma-Lite or striving for the initial, intermediate, or advanced scope of motivations, at least we’ll know where we are. In the end, we are our own best witness.

As we’ve seen, refuge or safe direction is what really sets Buddhism apart from other spiritual traditions. Safe direction is in reality the gateway to all the Buddhist teachings, and the start of a journey of clearing away disturbing emotions, engaging in self-improvement, and traveling the path to Buddhahood.