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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Explanation of Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment > Session Two: Intermediate Scope and Pledged Aspiring Bodhichitta

Explanation of Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment

Alexander Berzin
Prague, Czech Republic, January 2003

Session Two: Intermediate Scope and Pledged Aspiring Bodhichitta

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:01 hours)

Yesterday 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.

So, let’s pause here for our tea break. Then we’ll go on to the rest of the text of what are the methods, as Atisha says, for following this advanced scope of practice, this Mahayana practice.

The last two verses were, according to the outline by the First Panchen Lama in his commentary, the talking about “bodhichitta as the entranceway for the advanced scope.” Now, the next section is called:

The Ceremony for Wishing Bodhichitta, Together with Advice

When we talk about developing bodhichitta, then of course this is a process that we need to work up to and which requires a great deal of work and effort in order to sincerely feel. There are stages of meditation for developing this aspiration to achieve our enlightenment in the future to benefit others and these were outlined earlier in teachings by various Indian masters, like Kamalashila, before Atisha. And in the lam-rims that follow from Atisha, these meditation methods are elaborated more fully, because we need to sincerely develop this concern for others and for all others on the basis of having equanimity or an equal regard toward everyone. That takes a lot of work to really sincerely feel that.

As I said, also what is really important in terms of bodhichitta is the confidence that we actually can achieve enlightenment, that it’s not just a nice wish. And that, of course, is based on a realistic view of compassion. It’s very nice to wish everybody to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering, but if we don’t actually believe that it’s possible for them to be free of it, then again, what’s the point? When we take responsibility to be able to actually help them, if we don’t have confidence that, “I can actually do anything,” then again, we’re promising to do something that we’ll never be able to fulfill, so that also one has to really very seriously think about.

But when we have actually worked on ourselves and really contemplated and meditated and we start to feel this bodhichitta sincerely as, “This is my aim. This is my goal. I set my heart on this, focus on this goal of enlightenment,” bodhichitta, “I’m going to achieve it” – when we can do that, then it’s very helpful to have some sort of a ritual or a ceremony with which we make that quite formal. Because then we take this whole state of mind and orientation in life more seriously.

That’s the reason for any sort of ceremony. To mark some sort of a major event in our life you have a ritual and so on. You could just live with somebody, you don’t have to have a ritual to get married, but a ritual makes it formal, makes it into an event that one can go back to and think, “Ah, yes, this is where I formally made this commitment.” So this is why Atisha is speaking here about a ritual for developing this aspiring bodhichitta.

This bodhichitta has two stages: the one is called relative bodhichitta, the other is called deepest bodhichitta or ultimate bodhichitta. Relative bodhichitta is what we’ve been talking about, aimed at enlightenment with the wish to help all beings and to achieve that enlightenment to help everyone more fully. So it’s a mind which is aimed at the appearances of all beings, the appearances of everything and how to benefit others in terms of what’s appearing. It’s dealing with the relative truth of everything, the appearances.

And then deepest bodhichitta is dealing with the deepest truth of everybody and everything, which is their voidness. Voidness is referring to their absence of existing in impossible ways – we’ll talk about that later. When we talk about deepest bodhichitta, we’re talking about gaining the understanding of voidness. It’s a mind focused on the voidness of everyone.

Within relative bodhichitta there’s the aspiring state, a wishing state, and the involved or engaged state. The aspiring state is the wish to achieve enlightenment to help others and that has two stages: the merely aspiring, so merely the wish to achieve enlightenment to benefit everyone, and the pledged aspiring state, in which I pledge that I’m never going to give up until I actually achieve that enlightenment. And then the engaged state of relative bodhichitta is when we actually take the bodhisattva vows, “I’m going to engage in the bodhisattva behavior that’s going to bring me to enlightenment and I’m doing that very, very seriously, so that means I’m taking the bodhisattva vows, which are going to shape my behavior, a bodhisattva behavior.”

Atisha now first speaks about the ritual for confirming our aspiring state of bodhichitta, and specifically the pledged aspiring state that, “I’m never going to turn back.”

(7) Before paintings, statues, and so on of fully enlightened Buddhas,
As well as stupas and hallowed (Dharma texts),
Offer flowers, incense,
And whatever material things you may have.

This is basically how we start any type of a ritual and actually how we start any type of meditation as well. First we set up some sort of “shelf” for our offerings; that’s often called an “altar,” but since “altar” implies a sacrifice or something from a Biblical religion, it’s not the greatest word to use. On this offering shelf or platform we set up representations of the body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.

The “paintings and statues,” that refers to a representation of the body of a Buddha, which is referring to the physical faculties of a Buddha, the enlightening physical faculties, all the physical features of a Buddha which will help to bring others and lead others to enlightenment, so I call them “enlightening.” A “stupa” is a little monument that holds a relic of an enlightened being or a great teacher and here it is regularly used to represent the enlightening mental faculties of a Buddha, So usually on your shelf you have some little statue of a stupa. And then a “hallowed,” the text only says “hallowed” or “holy,” and that’s referring to the Dharma texts, so usually you put a Dharma text; often it’s a copy of The Heart Sutra, or one of these short Prajnaparamita Sutras. So that represents the enlightening verbal faculties or speech of a Buddha.

With bodhichitta, we’re aiming for achieving this. Or when we speak just in terms of safe direction, this is the direction that we want to go in, we want to achieve the enlightening physical, verbal, and mental faculties of a Buddha. When we spoke about the Dharma source of safe direction, that was a state in which all the shortcomings, the problems, suffering, and their causes are removed, so that state in which it’s removed. And the state of mind, and not only state of mind, but the appearances of that mind that will eliminate it and that is the result of that – what is present when that elimination has been attained.

Body, speech, and mind of a Buddha represent actually the goal, just as the Dharma represents the goal. With safe direction or refuge, that’s the direction we want to go in and with bodhichitta this is representing our own future attainment of these enlightening faculties that we wish to attain. And it’s also representing the enlightening faculties of the Buddhas of the past who have achieved this and shown the way to achieve this goal ourselves.

And then we set up offerings in front of this, so that’s why Atisha says, “Offer flowers, incense, and whatever material things you may have.” Normally we put there seven water bowls representing the seven-limb offering that’s mentioned in the next verse. And Atisha taught the Tibetans that even if you don’t have anything to offer, at least use your teacup or bowl and offer a bowl of water, at least offer something. And the water in Tibet was very pure and clean, so this was a very good offering.

Obviously, the Buddhas don’t need our offerings. What’s Buddha going to do with a stick of incense or a candle or a piece of fruit? They don’t need that. But the point is that we are offering this to our future enlightenment; so we are offering everything and the material offering is just representing that. We want to offer all our study, all our insights, all our time, all our effort to reaching our future enlightenment, so that we can truly help others and in this way we offer everything that we have to others.

And it builds up a great positive force of energy – “merit” usually it’s translated – a very positive force to actually achieve these goals and the positive force to enable us to help others. In tantra when we make offerings, we always make offerings to the Buddhas and to all sentient beings. It’s through offering to the Buddhas that then what we offer can go to all sentient beings. In other words, through offering everything we have to our achievement of enlightenment, that will enable us to offer it in the fullest way to everyone.

Then we sit down and then Atisha says:

(8) Also with the seven-limb offering mentioned in
(The Prayer of) Excellent Conduct,
With the mind never to turn back until
The ultimate (realization) of your Buddha-essence,
(9) With supreme belief in the Three Supreme Gems,
With bent knee touching the ground
And palms pressed together,
Firstly, take safe direction three times.

The seven-limb practice comes from this text, The Prayer of Excellent Conduct. Shantideva also speaks very extensively about it in Bodhicharyavatara (Engaging in Bodhisattva Conduct). These seven are:

First, making prostration. We have our own enlightenment as a focus and the Buddhas representing that, and with prostration we throw ourselves fully in this direction, represented by throwing ourselves down on the ground, full prostration, throwing very literally our whole energy in this direction. Showing respect to those who have achieved the goals that we want to achieve, enlightenment mainly, the Buddhas and the great masters, and showing respect to our own ability to achieve this, so our own Buddha-nature – these are the factors that we all have that will enable us to become a Buddha – and showing respect to our own future attainment of enlightenment, our own enlightenment of in the future.

Then the second limb is we make offerings. So, again we imagine offering everything. We’ve offered something material as a representation and we imagine offering everything – our energy, our efforts, our time, our hearts, our minds – everything to reaching enlightenment and to benefiting others.

The third limb is we openly admit that we have difficulties and problems in helping others and achieving these goals – we’re lazy, we are confused, and so on – and then we apply the four opponent forces: “I sincerely regret that I’m like that; I really wish I were not like that. I’m really going to try not to repeat it. I’m going to try to get out of these negative habits. And I reaffirm my foundation. What am I doing in life? Safe direction, bodhichitta. And whatever positive things I do, whether it’s study, meditation, or here having this ritual of aspiring bodhichitta, whatever I do, I want to apply it as an opponent to overcome these shortcomings I have.”

The fourth limb is rejoicing, “I rejoice in the fact that the nature of mind is pure,” and so, “I have Buddha-nature, I have the ability to get rid of all of this, it is possible,” and “I rejoice in the Buddhas and the great masters that have taught the way to do this, have taught bodhichitta, and I rejoice that they actually have taught all of this. Thank you.” The fifth limb is requesting teachings, “Please, Buddhas, teachers, please teach me. I’m not just going to have this ritual here, but teach me the way, guide me. I really, really want to learn. I’m absolutely determined to follow this path, so please teach me; my mind is open.”

And the sixth limb, “Don’t pass away!” “Buddhas, teachers, please don’t go away, don’t leave me. I’m absolutely sincere. I’m not just a Dharma tourist coming for a quick look and leaving, but I want to go all the way to enlightenment. So continue teaching me all the way. Don’t go away.” And then the seventh limb is the dedication, as we had yesterday, “Whatever positive force comes from this, may it act as a cause for reaching that enlightenment to truly be of best help to everyone.

So that’s the first thing here, we’ve set up the shelf, made offerings, and we do the seven-part practice – or the seven-limb prayer or offering – and then we have, he says, “a mind never to turn back until the ultimate realization of your Buddha-essence.” “Buddha-essence” is referring to Buddha-nature; and the ultimate realization of Buddha-nature is our attainment of enlightenment. Buddha-nature is referring to the factors we have that will enable us to reach enlightenment. So, “I’m going to go all the way. I’m not going to turn back until I reach enlightenment.”

And then “with supreme belief in the Three Supreme Gems” – “belief” here has a very specific meaning in Buddhism; it’s a little bit different from our Western concept of belief. It doesn’t mean faith in our Western sense, but it means to “believe a fact to be true.” It’s not, “I believe that it’s going to rain tomorrow.” That’s just a guess, I don’t really know. Or, “I believe in God,” which I can’t really understand, but just sort of “I believe.” And it’s not that “I believe in Santa Claus,” or something that doesn’t exist. But we believe in something which is true, a fact.

And what do I believe about it? “I believe that that fact is true.” And so here, what are we talking about? The Three Supreme Gems, so, “I believe that it is a fact. It’s true that there is this state from which all the problems, shortcomings, and so on are removed from a mental continuum and that mental continuum then fully uses all its potentials. That is something that I believe is true; it’s a fact that there is such a thing – that’s the Dharma. The Buddhas have achieved it in full and the Sangha have achieved it in part.”

There’s three types of belief here. There’s the confident belief based on reason, “I am convinced that this is the case based on reason – that the mind is by nature pure and that those stains of the mind can be removed and that the potential of the mind is that the mental continuum has all these incredible qualities to be able to perceive everything and to have a heart which is open equally to everybody. Based on reason, I’m confident that this is so.” This is the first type of belief here.

Then there’s the aspiring belief, “I am convinced that this is something which is attainable and I wish to achieve it and I’m confident that it is possible for me to achieve that.”

And then there’s the clear-minded belief, which is, “In believing these facts to be true – I’m totally convinced of it – it clears my mind of disturbing emotions.” So, “I don’t have doubts about it. I’m very secure about that. It makes me very emotionally stable.” It’s not a state of, “I believe the Buddhas are so wonderful and I’m such a horrible creature down here. I can’t achieve anything.” That’s very neurotic. I’m not talking about that. This is a belief in something that makes us more emotionally stable.

And then, “with bent knee touching the ground and palms pressed together,” that’s just sort of the posture of respect, undoubtedly coming from customs of ancient India, then we “take safe direction three times,” in other words, we reaffirm, “This is the direction that I’m going in.”

(10) Next, with a mind of love toward all limited beings as a start,
Look to all wandering beings, barring none,
Suffering from birth and so forth in the three worse realms,
And from death, transference, and so on.
(11) Then, with the wish that all wandering beings
Be liberated from the suffering of pain,
From suffering, and from the causes of suffering,
Generate pledged bodhichitta with which you will never turn back.

It says that we start “with a mind of love,” in other words, we need to build ourselves up, work ourselves up to this bodhichitta aspiration and the next step after we have this safe direction – we reaffirm this, we work for this – then now we think of love toward all beings. And it refers to “all limited beings – this is how I translate the word “sentient beings,” it’s referring to everyone who’s not a Buddha, so they’re still limited, a limited mind.

And it is a “mind of love” – love, as we said, is the wish for everybody to be happy and to have the causes for happiness – we want them to be happy; but they’re not happy, so then we remind ourselves that they’re not happy, they have a lot of problems.

And it says “look to all wandering beings.” “Wandering beings” are those that wander through samsara, in the sense of wandering from one rebirth to another rebirth, sometimes better states, sometimes worse states. And it says to look at all of them, “barring none,” don’t leave any out. This is a very important point and when we talk here about love and compassion we’re talking about what’s called “great compassion,” with which we are aiming at everybody. When we talk about bodhichitta we’re aimed at everybody. To be aimed at everybody requires equanimity toward everybody, so everybody’s equal – not having attachment to some and repulsion from others or indifference toward yet others.

Although we could focus on the Buddha-nature of everybody and in this sense see everybody as equal, this becomes far more profound if we again bring in rebirth here. Because when we think in terms of rebirth, then we’re thinking in terms of individual mental continuums, everybody’s individual mental continuum with no beginning and no end. And that mental continuum, although it’s individual – I’m not you and you’re not me; even in enlightenment Buddhas are still individual – although it’s individual, nevertheless it does not have an inherent identity as this life form or that life form, as a mosquito, as a human, or this gender or that gender, as a male or a female.

So, it’s just a matter of karma that’s built up in terms of that mental continuum that in this particular lifetime, this particular rebirth, it manifests this type of life form and this gender, or in another lifetime, another life form and another gender. So that mental continuum is not inherently my friend or enemy or somebody that I don’t know and so on, because it’s beginningless. It’s been everything; it’s manifested as everything. It’s a “wandering being,” each one is a wandering being going from one lifetime to another, appearing in one form after another, constantly changing, although individual, in individual sequence.

It’s on this basis that then we can open up to everybody – there’s no difference. This is yet another reason why Hard-Core Dharma, The Real Thing does really require an understanding of rebirth, past and future lives.

Although from one point of view you can say that everybody is this sort of almost impersonal mental continuum, it doesn’t have an inherent identity, it’s dangerous to just focus on that and ignore the relative appearance that they have now. Because if you ignore the relative appearance that they have now, as a dog or a man or a woman or whatever, then you can’t really relate to them in a close way. You need to be able to see two levels here – that on the one hand it’s a beginningless mental continuum with no inherent form, constantly changing; but yet to relate to this person I need to relate to what age they are now, what gender, what life form, culture, and so on.

What is the condition of these wandering beings, of everybody? Atisha says, “They’re suffering from birth and so forth” – sickness, old age, that’s what’s included here in the “so forth” – “in the three worse realms,” but in any realm, whether it’s the worse realms or the better realms. But in the worse realms, as animals, insects, etc., they have the most sufferings. So it mentions that here, and continues: and in each birth then there’s the problem of “suffering from death, suffering of transference,” that means transference to yet another rebirth state and it just goes on and on and on.

So everybody’s the same and then the “so on” after that means then that there’s never any satisfaction, there’s never any certainty, no security of what’s coming next. And then we have “the wish that all wandering beings be liberated from all this suffering,” so that’s compassion.

Alright, so what kind of suffering do they have? First, the “suffering of pain,” sometimes called the “suffering of suffering,” so in other words, being unhappy and having pain, the gross sufferings that we all recognize as suffering. And then the next “suffering” in the line is referring to the two other kinds of problems or sufferings. The first is the problem of change or suffering of change. That’s referring to our ordinary happiness. It’s a big problem because it changes, it doesn’t last, and we never know what’s coming next.

And then the third one is the all-pervasive suffering, all-pervasive problem, which is that we’re constantly being reborn with aggregates, in other words, body, mind, all these things, which are just going to help us to perpetuate the cycle in terms of more karma, more disturbing emotions, and so on, more problems.

And we don’t just want everybody to be free from all these problems and suffering, but we “want them to be free from the causes of it,” so that they never experience it again. That means we understand that the causes of their problems are not something which is external, but the causes of it refers to the confusion, the disturbing emotions, the karmic impulses, and so on that are on each individual mental continuum.

So, with this compassion – and what’s not mentioned here is the pure wish or the pure thought to take responsibility to do something about it – then we “generate pledged bodhichitta with which we will never turn back.” So this is not just merely the aspiring bodhichitta of, “I just wish to achieve enlightenment to help them,” but a much stronger state that, “I’m not going to turn back until I actually achieve it,” that’s the pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta.

The text is not simply referring to the first time that we do this, that we have a ritual that marks that, but each day in our meditation, to accustom ourselves to this, it’s very helpful to follow this type of procedure, because then it makes it much more firm in us, rather than just sort of, “Well, yeah. I think like that.” By making it into a personal ritual that we do each day with offerings and so on, then that’s really showing respect to ourselves and to what we’re doing with our lives.

But when doing a ritual like this each day, a ritualized practice, which means following a set procedure, then you really have to watch out for it becoming mechanical with no feeling in it. And it’s sort of “just do it” and then you do it out of duty and obligation, and if you don’t do it, then you feel guilty, so you do it just to avoid guilt, or you do it just to please your teacher, because the teacher said to do that. All those are very neurotic ways of approaching this type of practice and so it’s really quite important to think of the benefits of doing this. It’s why Atisha next talks about the benefits of this type of state of mind, this type of practice and to have it be very sincere, with feeling.

So, we’ll speak about the benefits after lunch.