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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Approaching the Dharma in a Balanced Way > Session Two: Dharma-Lite vs. Hard-Core Dharma

Approaching the Dharma in a Balanced Way

Alexander Berzin
Seattle, Washington, USA, April 2003

Session Two: Dharma-Lite vs. Hard-Core Dharma

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:36 hours)

There’s something else that I thought would be helpful to speak about here in our first meeting, sort of introductory things, is a distinction that I make between Dharma-Lite and Hard-Core Dharma. Dharma-Lite is like Coca-Cola Lite – it’s not “The Real Thing,” but it tastes nice and it’s not fattening, so there’s not so much harm from it. And then there’s Hard-Core Dharma, The Real Thing. And it’s very important, I think, to recognize the difference between these two and to have a realistic evaluation of where we’re at and what actually we’re doing with the Dharma and not to confuse Dharma-Lite for The Real Thing.

So let me talk about this a little bit, define what I mean here by Dharma-Lite and Hard-Core Dharma. One issue is rebirth. Now, rebirth is absolutely central to Dharma and there’s no denying that. If we look in terms of the three levels of motivation that we find in the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, what’s the first level? Working to improve our future lives. How can you possibly do that if you don’t believe in future lives? Then it’s a farce. Then gaining liberation. What do we mean by liberation? Liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. If you don’t believe that rebirth exists, why in the world would you want to get liberated from it?

And then enlightenment is the state in which we can help others to achieve liberation from rebirth. So again rebirth is essential. And recognizing everybody as having been your mother. Well, that’s rebirths. If you think in terms of the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, the whole process there is one of transforming the process of death, bardo, and rebirth. Well, if you don’t believe in rebirth, what are you doing with a sadhana, with a tantra practice, trying to transform that? Then it becomes almost a game that we’re playing, a fantasy that we don’t really believe in – it’s not so much that we don’t believe in it, we don’t even take seriously what it’s talking about.

And so Hard-Core Dharma is based on understanding and conviction in rebirth. To be convinced of rebirth is based on correct understanding of it. It’s not that we’re believing in something that Buddhism would refute, and so it’s very important to get a correct understanding of rebirth. When we talk about beginningless and endless mental continuum, that means rebirth, doesn’t it? And that’s absolutely essential for karma, because in almost all cases, except for very rare, the effects of our actions we experience in future lives. And what we experience in this life is the result of what we did in past lives.

Without that, then it makes very little sense of why a great practitioner dies a horrible cancer type of death, or why Tibetan lamas were thrown in concentration camps in Tibet. The whole thing falls apart. So there’s no way around this rebirth issue. And as I say, that depends on a correct understanding of rebirth – what do we mean by that? What is it that goes on from lifetime to lifetime? Of course that gets very profound, because then one has to get into the whole thing of the self and how that goes on and what is that. To understand what is meant by rebirth in Buddhism is not a simple task, not by any means; it’s a very complex, deep topic.

Dharma-Lite is saying that rebirth doesn’t matter and we can sort of forget about that and just do Dharma in terms of this lifetime.

If we look at ourselves honestly, at our motivation, what’s called “motivation” – “motivation” is an incorrect translation, by the way – but what they’re talking about in Buddhism is our aim, what are we aiming for? It’s not talking about the reason why you aim for it; it’s talking about the aim – aim to improve future lives, to gain liberation, to gain enlightenment – it’s the aim. And then of course there would be – what we in the West say – the motivation for that, the emotion behind that, whether it’s renunciation, compassion, whatever.

But the aim that most of us have, if we look at ourselves honestly, is to improve our current samsaric life of this lifetime, to have healthier relations with others, to have less problems with work or with our family, or whatever, but it’s basically to improve our samsaric existence of this lifetime. And my point here of making this difference between Dharma-Lite and Hard-Core Dharma is that Dharma-Lite is perfectly OK. We can start there. In fact, for most of us we need to start there.

But what makes it Dharma-Lite is to think that this is The Real Thing – that’s the problem – and that that is the extent of Dharma and that’s all that we need. Then Dharma degenerates into a form of therapy, it’s a Buddhist therapy, which is really shortchanging the Dharma. It’s much, much more there than that. However it can function very adequately to help us improve things in this lifetime. What would make it a Buddhist practice is to do that as a stepping-stone – to say:

"I acknowledge that rebirth is very, very important, very essential. I acknowledge that I really don’t understand the Buddha’s teachings on it, but I have a full intention to try to understand it. Now it’s not something that I can really deal with, so I’ll be kind to everybody, and not that everybody literally was my mother in a previous lifetime, but anybody could take me home and make a nice meal for me and give me a place to stay. And so everybody could be kind to me like a mother."

Of course that leaves out the mosquitoes; it would be difficult to imagine the mosquito taking us home and taking care of us. So we become quite limited there. But nevertheless, we could work with people and we could gain great benefit from that. But within the context that, “This is a stepping-stone and I fully intend to try to understand rebirth and will work with that,” and maybe “ Provisionally I will accept it without really understanding it” – that’s called presumption in terms of ways of knowing.

So that’s one dimension of the difference between Dharma-Lite and Hard-Core Dharma. And that fits into what we’ve been speaking about here, because as we approach Dharma in terms of a balance between intellectual, emotional, and devotional, it’s also important that we approach it honestly in terms of what really is our aim and not pretend to be aiming for something that we really aren’t . Especially when we think in terms of all sentient beings, “I’m working to liberate all sentient beings,” that’s such a farce for most of us. If you take that literally, “Am I really, really working to liberate every mosquito, every cockroach?” Hardly. But that’s the scope.

So it’s important not to use these words lightly, because then we trivialize them. All sentient beings is an awful lot of beings and it’s not just humans, so, “OK, I’m working to try to benefit as many people as possible, with the aim eventually to be able to extend that to all beings in all life forms and all places. And my practice now on a limited scope is a stepping-stone toward that.” Then our practice on this sort of preliminary stage – before the traditional presentation of Dharma begins with wanting to benefit future lives – that becomes perfectly OK. In fact, it is not only reasonable, but necessary for most of us. You’re not going to walk in the door of a Dharma center and aim to improve your future lives – for most people.

The other aspect that I think is relevant here, or one other aspect, I’m sure there are many others, in terms of the difference between Dharma-Lite and Hard-Core Dharma, is the whole point concerning liberation and enlightenment, “Do I really believe that that’s possible?” That’s a very deep question and an important question to ask ourselves, “Do I really, really think that it’s possible, not in theory, not somebody else, but for me to gain true stopping, a total stopping of all confusion, all disturbing emotions, all disturbing attitudes, so that they never ever arise again and thus eliminate suffering?”

“Do I really think that’s possible? Do I really think it’s possible to become omniscient, to get rid of the obscurations that prevent me from knowing all things?” In other words, is it possible to become a Buddha? And that’s very, very difficult to understand. It’s difficult to even conceive of what that means, to be liberated from disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes and all traces of it. It’s hard to conceive what it means, a Buddha’s omniscience. A Buddha is able to know without obstruction and without attachment the past, present, and future. What in the world does that mean? And it surely doesn’t mean that the past and future exist somewhere out there still happening.

And if we don’t have some sort of idea of what it is that we’re aiming for and if we don’t have any conviction that it’s actually possible to achieve it and if we don’t have any conviction that it’s possible for us to achieve it, then what are we doing? And what does it mean that, “I’m trying to bring everybody else to that state?” Compassion becomes a farce. “I want to liberate all beings,” “ What in the world does that mean if I don’t even believe that liberation is possible, if I don’t even understand what it is?”

So that gets around to the whole understanding of the third and fourth noble truths, basically. What is a true stopping and what is a true path of mind that will bring that about? And how does it work so that suffering and its causes, the first two noble truths, never recur ever? So it’s a very profound topic. If you understand that, you become an arya, basically, according to the Hinayana tenets. So, how do we deal with it now? What’s the Dharma-Lite version of it? The Dharma-Lite version of it is:

“Well, I’m just going to try to minimize as much as possible my disturbing emotions and attitudes, it’s too much to think that I can actually get rid of them all. I’ll try to minimize them so it’s not so terrible. Not so difficult. I don’t get so angry; I don’t get so nervous, so upset. And whether or not there are actually Buddhas who are omniscient, I don’t know. I find that hard to accept. OK, I will accept that there are great beings who are much more highly developed than I am and if I could become like them that would be pretty good, I’d be satisfied.”

That’s a much more realistic level of aim. And if we examine ourselves honestly, that’s probably what we’re aiming for in conjunction with improving samsara of this lifetime. What does it mean to improve samsara of this lifetime? Make it a bit better; minimize the troublemakers in our minds and hearts. And again I would say that that Dharma-Lite version is not really the negative type of Dharma-Lite, if it is acknowledged and pursued within the context of it being a stepping-stone:

“A stepping-stone on the path toward liberation and enlightenment – which I really don’t understand yet. And if I don’t understand it, how can I be convinced that it’s possible to achieve? But it’s sort of the direction that I’m going in; it’s sort of like a curve that’s approaching infinity or a limit or something like that in mathematics. And I’m going to try and understand it and try to work toward that understanding.”

That I think is a perfectly acceptable way of practicing on that Dharma-Lite level. The negative Dharma-Lite is to think, “That’s all that is possible; it’s not really possible to get rid of the confusion forever and the anger forever, but you can minimize it pretty much and that would be enough.”

So I think these are issues that are very important to examine and take seriously when we enter into Dharma practice. How are we approaching it? Are we approaching it intellectually, emotionally, devotionally, or some sort of combination of that? And with each of these approaches, are we following it in an immature way or a mature way? And in terms of our aim, in terms of our general way of pursing the path, are we doing it in a Dharma-Lite fashion, which would be either mature or immature, or are we doing it in a Hard-Core Dharma way, The Real Thing?

And The Real Thing is important not to trivialize. And that’s really sad when it does become trivialized because it’s beyond what we can conceive of and so we don’t really want to deal with it.

These are my thoughts for this evening. What questions do you have?

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: When we speak in terms of taking refuge – I was using the word put a “safe direction”< in our lives and the question was: can’t we also think of it more in terms of taking comfort in something?

I think again it can be analyzed in terms of the three approaches – the intellectual, the emotional, and the devotional. The devotional side is finding comfort and inspiration. The intellectual side is based on understanding what are the sources of safe direction. The sources of safe direction are the third and fourth noble truths on the deepest level.

It’s very complex, the presentation of the Three Gems, the Three Rare and Precious Gems they’re called. But if we look on the deepest level of those three as is presented in Abhisamayalamkara – that’s A Filigree of Realizations by Maitreya, it’s the major text that the Tibetans study, they study it for five years as part of the Geshe training – on the deepest level the Three Gems are all the third and fourth noble truths – true stopping and the true path that leads to that. As a source of inspiration the Buddhas, as the source of actual attainments, what you practice, it’s the Dharma, and as a source of enlightening influence it’s the Sangha. That’s the presentation there.

And there’s an apparent level of what we actually encounter. That apparent level would be the physical bodies of the Buddha, the teachings, the realizations, and the aryas, those who have had nonconceptual cognition of voidness. That’s the apparent level of what we see. And then there’s a representation, what represents it, but that isn’t really a source of direction. That would be the Buddha statues and the texts and the actual monks and nuns. So it’s important intellectually to know what is it that’s the actual source of direction, in other words, what are we aiming for.

The expression is in Sanskrit “ sharanam gacchami,” I go for sharanam. Sharanam has a sense of protection to it, but the fact that they use the word “go” implies that it’s active, it’s not passive. It’s not “I receive protection,” it’s “I go, do something active.” And so going in that direction, “I understand what it is and I understand that going in that direction is going to provide the protection.” Gaining a true stopping and the true paths that bring it about – that’s what protects you from suffering and its causes; it gets rid of them. And so “by going in that direction, I gain that protection.”

So you have that intellectual understanding. You also have an emotional component of it in terms of the motivating emotions that bring that about: dread, I really don’t want to continue with all the suffering in samsara, confidence that this direction is going to lead me out of it, and if you do it in a Mahayana way, compassion to be able to bring everybody else out of it as well; so there’s an emotional component. And that devotional component is what you’re speaking of, that you derive comfort from that and inspiration.

So it’s really a complex of all these aspects. And again, it’s so sad when refuge is trivialized, just sort of, “Yeah, I take refuge,” and you just sort of recite some formula, or you get a Dharma name, join the club. But it really is a huge difference in our lives when we actually put a direction in it. For so many of us our lives are meaningless, there’s no direction – it’s not going anywhere or it’s going downhill, it’s getting worse, more depressed, more hassled. We don’t know really what we’re doing in life.

Whereas when we put this meaning in life and again this direction – working for the true stopping and the true path that brings that about – then that gives a meaning. But as I was mentioning with this difference between Dharma-Lite and the Hard-Core Dharma, it has to be based on confidence that it’s possible to reach that. Otherwise what are we doing? How can that give you any comfort if you don’t actually have confidence that you can reach that goal? “Well,” you might say, “ but I can go pretty far.” But pretty far within the context of eventually being able to reach that goal – then it becomes a true refuge, true safe direction.

Same thing in terms of bodhichitta. Do you know what bodhichitta is? Bodhichitta is a mind, the mental activity, which is aimed at, or focused at, our own enlightenment. Often people just hear, “ Well, it’s aimed at enlightenment.” And what in the world does that mean? We’re not talking about aimed at the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni; we’re not talking about enlightenment in general; we’re talking very specifically about our own enlightenment that will exist on our own mental continuum sometime in the future.

That’s our aim, our own specific enlightenment, based of course on the conviction that we have Buddha-nature, all the potentials that will allow it, and that it’s possible to achieve that state. Then it’s accompanied by the intention to achieve it and the intention to benefit everybody by means of that – actually, it goes the other way around: the intention to benefit everybody, which is why we want to reach it, and then the intention to reach it in order to be able to do that.

It’s very important to understand that and to understand when you talk about the future enlightenment – now we get into philosophy a little bit here – what we mean by the past and the future from a Prasangika point of view, let’s talk about it from that, what a Buddha sees. He sees the time passed, not past, he sees the passed, that state of being passed. So it’s like if we think in terms of a person, let’s say myself, Alex – Baby Alex doesn’t exist anymore, but that state of being passed away of that baby, that one can see. A Buddha would be able to see that in terms of the effects that have come from that, the passed-away situation of that baby Alex no longer there, that state itself.

And if you talk about the future, the future is actually the time not-yet-come, literally. When we talk about past and future, our way of looking at it, in our terms it sounds as though the past is existing somewhere there and the future is existing somewhere there and they’re all existing at the same time. It’s not like that. So it’s not-yet-come. What has not yet come doesn’t exist [now]. What’s passed away doesn’t exist [now]. But that state of it being passed away exists and the collection of causes that will bring about what has not yet come, that’s what a Buddha sees when a Buddha sees what’s called the future.

And so when we’re looking at our own future enlightenment, then we’re looking at the collection of causes that will bring that about, with a definite understanding that it can bring that about, given the proper effort and the proper methods. Also it’s not a myth then in terms of bodhichitta talking about that future enlightenment, which will exist, not-yet-come, further down the line on my own mental continuum. And in tantra, then you imagine that you’re there already, in terms of imagining that you’re a Buddha-figure. That’s why you can’t do tantra without bodhichitta – it is bodhichitta.

Any other questions?

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: If rebirth is so central to Buddhism, what made me convinced of rebirth?

OK, I’ll tell you. I’ve been working with it for a long time. I’ve been involved with Buddhism about forty years now. And what really convinced me of it was my close relationship with Serkong Rinpoche in two lifetimes. I was very, very close to the old one; I’m very, very close to the new one.

The new one is eighteen; he’ll be nineteen next month. And when he was found, basically he recognized himself. He died and was reborn in Spiti, this valley in India on the border of Tibet that the old Serkong Rinpoche had done a great deal of work in to reform and revive Buddhism. So he was sort of like the local saint of the valley; everybody has a picture of him in their house. He died in that valley; he was reborn in that valley. And as soon as this little boy could speak, he would point to the picture and say, “That’s me.” And so it was always very clear.

When the attendants came looking in that valley, because His Holiness indicated that that’s where they would find him, they went to the house and the little boy ran into the arms of the attendant and knew him by name. And Rinpoche told me that all he wanted was to go to Dharamsala – he was four years old! – and he felt that there was somebody very, very important there for him to meet, meaning His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He wanted immediately to go away with these monks.

And so his parents gave permission and he went away. He never ever cried, asked for his parents, took any interest whatsoever in returning to them. Never. That’s pretty unusual for a four-year-old. And he has nice parents; it’s not that they were abusing him or anything like that. And when I met him a few months after that, I went into the room – I was away when he came to Dharamsala – the attendant asked, “Do you who this is?” And Rinpoche said, “Don’t be stupid, of course I know who this is.”

And from the very moment that he laid eyes on me, he was totally comfortable, familiar, relaxed with me, like I was a member of his family. Now, of course I was a little bit skeptical in the beginning, but as time has progressed and I’ve seen how he’s developed...

I haven’t had so much contact with him during the formative years and I did that on purpose; I didn’t want him to become infected with Western ways. I made sure that he learned English and Western subjects all from Tibetans with the same textbooks that the Tibetans learn it in school, so that he’d feel totally comfortable with his people in his society. It doesn’t need to learn Sesame Street English, cookie monster English, it doesn’t need that. But later on, even though I didn’t have much contact with him during those years, the same thing coming from his side of total familiarity with me, total trust in me, and I feel that about him as well.

So having that experience, that, “Yes, this is the reincarnation.” “Yes, this is not the same person, in a sense,” it gives you a little bit of an insight into what is it that continues: basic mental activity with the various instincts. Of course, there’s lots of different karmic factors which are there, different instincts are there, so slightly different personality things will manifest in each lifetime. But there are so many things that are remarkably similar with the previous one.

The old one had these deep, deep wrinkles on his forehead; it was the model for Yoda in Star Wars. It was. Honest injun, it was; they came to Dharamsala. But the young one, at about the age of about fourteen or fifteen, he already had these deep wrinkles in his forehead. Nobody has that at that age; his hair is already, parts of it, white. The way that his fingers and toes... it’s really very eerie, very eerie. And that’s not a usual thing; usually the body will be quite different. But there are so many things.

He loves debating; he was the best debate person – loves it. And the use of humor and these sort of things. But it’s basically the connections that make me so convinced and my own feeling in terms of him, these instincts that continue. So, that very much has been what has convinced me. It really took me over the border. I was understanding it intellectually and accepting it intellectually, but this has made me really accept it on a gut level. And it’s only then that one can start seriously being a person of initial level motivation in lam-rim – it’s very important.

I’m doing this website, I have a huge amount of unpublished manuscripts: all the work that I did in India, everything I studied I translated, and all the teachings that I translated, and all my own writings and lectures and stuff like that. There’s about thirty thousand pages of unpublished manuscripts. And so I decided that I wanted to devote the rest of my life to making that available. Because otherwise it’ll just be thrown in the garbage when I die. And I must say a great deal of my motivation is that I want to be able to connect with this material in my next lifetime.

I’m preparing it for myself. If other people benefit from it, that’s great. I mean I start to understand Shantideva’s line, “I write this for my own benefit. If other people benefit as well, great.” But I want to have access to this in my next lifetime. And nobody is going to go looking for me, so in terms of instincts – what’s going to be the big instinct is going to be connection with this website and this material. So I have confidence, if I’m reborn as a human, that my instincts will lead me to this website. And then BAM! everything should click. So it’s only now that I can think on a more serious level of being initial scope – really doing something very specific for your next lifetime. This is very specific.

So as I say, rebirth is very important, otherwise we just say “benefit rebirths” – we usually skip over that one, “liberation or enlightenment.” I sincerely believe that rebirth is very important for really the Hard-Core stuff on a sincere level.

Any other questions?

Well, then let’s end for this evening with a dedication. I know you have a dedication here, but let me say something about the dedication. When we do something positive... and I don’t like the word “merit” either, merit sounds as though you’re getting points and if you collect enough points then you win a toaster oven or something like that, a merit badge. And then I used to translate it as “positive potential,” but then I learned a little bit more deeply that it’s not really a potential if we look at all the different schools of tenets how they explain karma, so that only works for one of the schools. So now I use “positive force.”

So, it builds up a positive force when we do something constructive. Now, if we use the analogy of a computer, the default setting of our internal computer is that you do something positive and the positive force gets saved in the good karma folder to improve samsara. That’s the default setting, you build up good karma. What does good karma do, positive karma? It improves samsara. So we’ll be able to make nice coffee table conversation about a talk that we heard and people will find us clever and interesting and so on. That’s improving samsara.

So if we want that positive force to be saved in the enlightenment-building folder, you have to consciously press the save button and save it there – that’s the dedication. “Whatever positive force has built up, I don’t want that to just contribute to improving my samsara. May that contribute to reaching enlightenment and benefiting everyone by means of that.” Then it gets saved in the enlightenment folder. That’s the dedication, it’s very important. Otherwise all we do is build up good karma to improve samsara and that’s it. So please try to remember that.