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Introductory Explanation for Studying Tsongkhapa's Three Principal Aspects of the Path

Alexander Berzin
Xalapa, Mexico, April 2004

Session One: Taking the Path Seriously and Making Preparations

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:00 hours)

Let’s begin by quieting down to focus on the breath, just breathing normally through the nose, to just settle our minds for a moment.


Often, before the teachings, we offer prostration and then, after making prostration and sitting down, we set the motivation. But I find that this order is backwards. This is because we need the proper motivation for making prostration. Otherwise the prostration tends to be a little bit mechanical, there’s that danger. That’s why I prefer to quiet down while standing up, set the motivation, then do prostration, then sit down.

When we speak about motivation in Buddhism, we need to understand that it has two parts: one is the motivating emotion; the other is the motivating aim. When we think of our motivating emotion, basically we think of the terrible suffering and problems that we ourselves face in life, how horrible they are, and how wonderful it would be to get out of them. And then we think about everybody else and how they’re all in the same difficult situation in life and how terrible that is and how wonderful it would be, not only if they were out of their difficulties, but if we were able to actually help them out of those difficulties.

Our basic motivating emotion here is renunciation of our own sufferings and compassion for others’ sufferings. But in order to really help them, we need to get over our own problems. And not only that, we need to actually reach enlightenment to help them as fully as is possible. For that we need to learn the teachings, we need to think about them, we need to put them into practice.

The most important aspects of that path, which will lead us to enlightenment, are what’s called these “three principal paths.” We’re here to learn something about them, so that we would be able to actually put them into practice and be of help to everyone; so we have this coming here as part of our safe direction, or refuge, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The motivating aim is bodhichitta, to reach enlightenment by means of this and to learn how to get there to benefit everyone. So, we think of that.

Then we offer prostration. In offering prostration, we’re showing our respect to three things: First is to the Buddhas and great masters who have actually reached enlightenment and been able to benefit not only us, but others so much and who have reached their enlightenment through practicing these type of teachings.

And we show respect to our own future enlightenment, our own individual, future enlightenments. This is what we’re aiming to achieve with bodhichitta. Although it’s not happened yet, it’s something which is possible for us to achieve. With the prostration we show respect to that.

And thirdly, we show respect to all the Buddha-nature aspects that we have now, the aspects of our body, speech, and mind which will actually allow us to achieve this enlightenment. With these thoughts in mind, we offer prostration.


Thank you for your kind introduction. I’m very, very happy to be here.

Before our teachings, we often do preliminary practices. The word “preliminary” sometimes sounds like, “Well, I’m not a beginner, I don’t really need to do them. Let’s just get into the real stuff.” But actually, another way of looking at these preliminaries is as “preparation.”

I think the image that is very helpful here is the image of traditional Tibetans who are nomads. If you’re about to go on a caravan journey, then you need to pack the animals. It’s like packing our suitcases. But here’s a journey in which we’re not going to be able to buy anything along the way, so we have to prepare everything beforehand. Only when we are prepared very well, then can we undertake our journey. You can’t just go off for forty days walking through a wilderness with no preparation.

So this is what we do before teachings and any serious type of practice. We need to prepare our minds in order to be able to be the most receptive and open and to be the most clear to be able to understand. For this we have the preparatory practices.

We already began these with first quieting down by focusing on the breath, so that we have a little bit of space between what was going on before we came here and now what we’re about to do.

Then we remind ourselves why we’re here or why we’re sitting down to meditate. As I said, there are two aspects of that. There’s the emotion or feeling that is moving us to come here to learn more, to practice. What is it that we’re aiming to achieve by being here, or by practicing, or by studying? What are we going to do with it once we achieve it? Because if we’re not clear about that, then our energy isn’t strongly moved into the direction of what we’re about to do.

And then we do what is called the seven-part practice. I don’t know what you call it, the seven-limb puja or seven-limb prayer?

So, we began that with offering prostration. And what I tried to emphasize with this when we did this was that it’s a way of showing respect. Prostration was the traditional way in which people showed respect in the days when Buddha was teaching, so that’s the form that it has. But the main thing is of course the state of mind with which we do this, as I say, this respect for those who have actually achieved the aim that we are striving toward. We are striving to achieve something similar to that and showing respect to that future enlightenment that we’re aiming toward.

This is not just a nice dream, a nice wish, which is something impossible that we could ever achieve. And so we remind ourselves that we have all the factors now in terms of the natural abilities of the mind to understand and so on, the natural warmth of the heart, the ability to communicate, and the ability to actually physically help. We have all these factors now – communication, warmth of the heart – and so it’s just a matter of working on getting rid of the obstacles that are preventing them from functioning fully and developing them to their fullest capacity.

So we show respect to all these aspects that we have now, which will allow us to achieve this aim. In doing this, indirectly we show respect to ourselves. It’s very important when we’re trying to follow a spiritual path to take ourselves seriously with respect and to have a clear idea of what we’re aiming for and why and what we’re going to do with it once we’ve achieved it. By offering prostration, symbolically we are throwing ourselves fully in this direction, “This is where I’m going.”

So that’s the first part of these seven parts. And then we sit down and the next part is making offerings. There are many different things that we offer. The most important thing that we want to offer is all our energy, our time, our effort – this is into trying to achieve this goal. That’s the main thing to offer, isn’t it? In other words, we offer whatever we have, whatever we have available, we want to use that, in whatever productive way that we can, to go further on this path. Even things that don’t actually belong to us, the environment and so on, we want to make the most optimal use of that to further our path. It’s raining all the time? “Well, then I can stay at home and meditate,” for example, if it’s too terrible to go outside.

We make these offerings to the Buddhas and the great masters. Actually they don’t need any of these things, but by offering to them, what we’re doing is, in a sense, also showing respect to them. By offering it to them, actually we’re offering it to what they represent, which is the enlightened state that we are aiming to achieve. And through them, we are offering all of this to everybody, because the whole point of achieving this goal is to benefit everyone. So whatever we have, we want to use not only to reach that spiritual goal, but also now use it to benefit and help others.

There are many specific things that we can offer, what we’ve just discussed here in general. One of them is called the “offerings of concentration.” These are specifically offerings of different aspects of our practice. We offer these aspects of our practice and then, once we bring that to mind and in our mind offer them, we imagine that they take a certain physical form; and these are the standard types of offering objects of water, flowers, incense, and so on. So, as I describe these, please try to follow along and do this in your mind.

First, what we offer is everything that we’ve ever read or studied. This is not only in terms of Dharma, but anything that we’ve ever read or studied. This is something that we can use to help us to understand more deeply. This has trained us to understand and we can use that to help others. So we think of what we’ve read and studied, and offer it. We’re going to use that to reach enlightenment, offer that to others. So our schooling, this type of things. And that takes the form of the water offerings.

Then we offer all the knowledge that we’ve gained from that studying and reading. “I’m going to use that knowledge to help me on the path to help others.” And that takes the form of the beautiful flowers that grow from the water.

Then we think of all the discipline that we have had in the past, that we have now, that we’ll use in the future. The discipline to avoid negative destructive things, starting from being lazy and not really trying to help anyone. And the discipline to actually study, the discipline to meditate, to practice. And all the discipline that we’ve used to actually help others as much as we’ve been able to do so far. And we offer all that discipline in the form of very fragrant smoke of incense – not the type that gives you asthma or makes you sneeze.

Then we offer all the insight that we’ve gained from this disciplined practice, based on our knowledge, that we’ve done with discipline. All that insight, “May it help me to reach enlightenment, may it help me to help others more.” And that takes the form of the light from candles or butter lamps.

And then all the firm conviction that we’ve gained in the teachings based on this insight. It’s on that basis of conviction and confidence that we can really be of help, that we follow the path. We offer that in the form of very refreshing cologne water. It’s very refreshing to have conviction free of doubts.

Then we offer our concentration. When we have firm conviction in our understanding, in our insight, then we can concentrate fully. If we still have doubts and question our understanding, then it’s very difficult to concentrate on it, isn’t it? We offer that concentration and it takes the form of food, nourishing food. When we’re really concentrated, even just in our work, we can go for hours and hours; we forget even to eat, don’t we?

And then we offer all our clear explanations, teachings, even our clear recitation of the words of the Buddhas that we’re able to make with this concentration and conviction, our clear explanations, even our reading of the Buddhist texts out loud, reciting that we do with this concentration based on understanding and conviction. That takes the form of beautiful music.

So, that’s the second step of making offerings. This also helps us to reaffirm and acknowledge what we’ve been doing so far and what we want to do now, in listening to a teaching or meditating, is to build on that, go further. That’s very important, to acknowledge what we’ve done already and to want to build more on that.

In the third step, we openly admit that we have had difficulties in following the path. Often we’ve been lazy, we don’t feel like practicing, we don’t feel like coming to teachings, we don’t feel like meditating. And we often get angry and we’re greedy and selfish and we lose self-control and often say destructive things, act in a destructive way, or have very negative thoughts and get depressed, and so on. “OK, I acknowledge that, I admit that, and I regret that very much. It’s not that I feel guilty about it. It’s not that I’m a bad person, but I really wish that I didn’t act like that.” That’s what regret means, like regretting that we ate food that made us sick, “I’m not a bad person because of that.” There’s no reason to feel guilt.

Then we decide that, “I’d really like to get out of this, get out of it, stop repeating this over and over.” So we reaffirm what we’re doing with our lives and this is our basis, our foundation. And what we are doing is we’ve put a safe direction in our life, that’s the direction of refuge. We are working on ourselves to get rid of these shortcomings, to achieve a true stopping of them so that they never happen again, and to realize all our qualities in their fullest, fullest forms that are possible, and to reach that fullest state of evolution, Buddhahood, to be able to really be of help to everyone.

We reaffirm that, “My life does have a meaning. I have a direction of what I’m doing with my life, where I’m going, and this is a safe direction, very secure, very positive. And whatever I learn with my study that’s coming next, whatever I learn from my meditation that I’m about to do, may that act as an opponent. I’m actually going to apply it to overcome these shortcomings.”

The next step is we rejoice. We rejoice that we are actually able to get rid of these shortcomings because we have all these Buddha-nature factors that will make it possible. And the nature of the mind is naturally pure of all these shortcomings, these “stains” they’re called. They’re things that are just temporary, they can be removed. We rejoice in that, “That’s wonderful. That’s fantastic.” And we try to feel how wonderful that is, “It’s fantastic that it’s possible to actually overcome these things.”

We also rejoice in the Buddhas and the great masters who have actually accomplished this great attainment, “It’s fantastic that people have actually achieved and actualized this natural purity and full capacity of the mind and the heart, the fullest capacity of the ability to communicate, the fullest capacity of the body to be able to help. That’s great. And what’s even more marvelous is that they’ve actually taught us how to do this ourselves. What an incredible, wonderful gift. Thank you so much.”

Then we request the teachings, that’s the next step, “Buddhas, great masters, please teach me!” Whether we are going to an actual teaching in which we listen to something, whether we’re reading a Dharma book, ”Please teach me something.” And when we’re sitting down to meditate, we’re following the instructions of the Buddhas, “Teach me something from this meditation; may I learn something from this. I really, really want to learn.”

Then the next step, “Please don’t go away. I’m a hundred percent serious about this. I’m not going to give up halfway through, so continue to teach me all the way to enlightenment. Don’t ever go away.”

And then the final step, “Whatever positive force comes from this practice, comes from this learning and study, may that act as a cause to reach enlightenment to benefit all.”

So, that’s the seven-part prayer. We can see, I think, from this slow explanation and way of developing it, that it’s an incredible practice and it really opens our mind and really gets our energy really, really receptive to now listening or to meditating, studying.

There are many standard verses with which this seven-part practice has been formulated. One of the original formulations of this comes from the great Indian master Shantideva. And although it’s very nice to chant or recite these verses either in the original language, or in our own language, or in Tibetan translation – originally it was in Sanskrit – it’s very important not to just recite and sing verses without having our hearts in them. And so it is often very helpful to go through these seven steps slowly in our own words, with our thoughts first, and then to reaffirm it, after that process, with the standard verses.

[See: Seven-Limb Prayer.]

The next thing that we do as our preparation is to make a very conscious decision; we make the conscious decision to listen – and to practice, if we’re going to be meditating – with concentration. It’s very important to set that intention first and keep that intention, “If my mind wanders off, I haven’t come here to daydream. I’m not sitting down to meditate to just daydream, so if my mind wanders off, I’ll bring my attention back. If I start to get sleepy and dull and sort of phase out, then I’ll try to wake myself up. After all, I haven’t come here to take a nap.”

So, we make that conscious decision and, sort of while doing that, we try to be a little bit more focused. Also it helps at that point to straighten up our posture. There is a long set of instructions on the posture, there’s no need to go through that here, but what’s most important is to have our backs straight, so that the energy flows more smoothly through the body and we don’t get so sleepy.

And then, if we’re going to be listening to teachings, we offer a mandala. Now, mandala is not so easy to understand and, again, it’s important to understand, what are we doing with this mandala? What is it all about? In the first verse that you do here*, which is the most standard verse, we imagine a Buddha-land or a Buddha-field. It could be translated either way, it doesn’t matter, a pure land. And this is a standard form of it, with Mount Meru and continents and things like that.

* [By directing and offering to the Buddha-fields
This base, anointed with fragrant waters, strewn with flowers,
And decked with Mount Meru, four islands, a sun, and a moon,
May all those who wander be led to pure lands.
Om idam guru ratna mandala-kam nir-yatayami.
(I send forth this mandala to you precious gurus.)]

It’s not so important what form it actually takes, but what we need to understand is what is a pure land, what is a Buddha-field? It is a situation in which everything is the most, most conducive for really, really learning more, understanding more, practicing more to reach enlightenment to benefit everyone.

Everybody in a pure land is an arya bodhisattva. This means a bodhisattva following the Mahayana path, they’re aimed for enlightenment to benefit everyone, and they’ve had already nonconceptual cognition of reality and the whole Mahayana motivation and the teachings. So now they’re in this state of mind and the situation in which they’re really ready to go the final steps.

And the form that Buddhas take to teach in such pure lands are not the Nirmanakaya forms – these are the emanation forms, like Shakyamuni Buddha, that just stay for a short while and pass away – this is a Sambhogakaya form. This is a “corpus” or a collection of forms that can make full use (sambhoga) of Mahayana teachings – it’s usually translated as “body,” but actually it means a corpus or a collection of many, many, many, many forms teaching simultaneously in many different aspects. Here, these very subtle forms of a Buddha that never stop teaching can make the full use of Mahayana. That means that they don’t have to teach on a simple level; they can teach full depth and full scope of Mahayana, because students are so receptive, they’re already so highly advanced.

So in such a situation – it’s not like a wonderful paradise where everybody sits around by the swimming pool and plays cards and has a good time, but the whole point is that twenty-four hours a day, we don’t have to do anything else except study, learn, practice, meditate. And we have bodies that are made of like light and we don’t have to eat, we don’t have to sleep, we don’t have to go to the toilet, we don’t have to work to make money or do any of the ordinary things that really take up so much of our time.

We are not really able to devote twenty-four hours a day to going further on the path intensively. How wonderful that would be if we could be in that situation. And so when we request the teachings with a mandala, what we are going to imagine is that, “Now this whole situation of where I am and receiving the teaching and so on is like a pure land, like a Buddha-field. I’m not thinking about ‘my legs hurt’ and ‘the light isn’t so good’ and ‘the seat isn’t so comfortable’ and ‘I have to worry about paying the rent.’ All that’s gone and all these worries are not there.” But we are like an arya bodhisattva, so perfectly open, perfectly prepared, and the teachers as well. By this force of the Buddha we’re hearing the pure teachings.

And we request the teachings within that framework of mind, “I would really like to make this an ideal teaching that I can really learn from.” Regardless of what deficiencies we might have and the teachers might have, that’s not what we’re focusing on. We’re focusing on the positive things that we can learn from the teachings and the positive aspects of ourself that can be like a Buddha-field, a pure land. In offering the mandala we think, “May everybody be able to share in this. May everybody be able to have such wonderful, wonderful circumstances to learn and to practice.”

We also offer with this second verse* all our problems and our disturbing emotions. And every aspect of our life we offer: bodies, mind, speech, “Everything that I’ve done, I offer this in the sense that this is what I want to work on, through this teaching that I’m requesting, bring it all out. This is what I want to purify; this is what I want to make use of and learn how to advance on this basis. So, I’m putting everything into this opportunity. Please, please teach me.”

* [The objects of attachment, aversion, and ignorance,
Friends, enemies, and strangers,
My body, wealth and enjoyments,
I offer these without any sense of loss.]

So, this is the offering of the mandala, so let’s offer.

Om idam guru ratna mandala-kam nir-yatayami

I’ve been asked to teach the three principle paths. This is in a text by this name by the great master Tsongkhapa.

[See: The Three Principal Aspects of the Path.]

I know that a number of you have been studying this text for quite a while, so in thinking about what could be of help to you. It doesn’t seem as though the greatest benefit would be to go through the text again word by word, but to speak more in general about how do we to put this material together and actually apply it? What does it mean?

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in our first day today on the preparatory practices, because I think what is most important in following this spiritual path is to take it very, very seriously. Now, to take something seriously doesn’t mean to be grim and not being happy about it and not joke about it sometimes in the process of studying or laugh. It doesn’t mean that. But rather what it means is – if we’re to going to follow this spiritual path, then to have great respect for not only the path and those who have achieved it, but for ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, like on my website – I have this huge website,, in which I have now already about four hundred articles and within the next few months I’ll have a Spanish section coming up. In that, I have an article and I speak in various places about Dharma-Lite versus the Real Thing Dharma, like Coca-Cola Light and the Real Thing Coca-Cola.

[See: “Dharma Lite” Versus “The Real Thing” Dharma.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s perfectly fine: Dharma-Lite is appropriate, the appropriate drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll stop here for this evening. And what I would like to do tomorrow is to explore with you a little bit more of the issue, which I think is really very, very central to following this type of practice and this text, which is: is enlightenment actually possible? That will bring in all these other issues of rebirth and so on.

So, maybe we have a little time for a few questions, although I know we’re already past nine-thirty.

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

Answer: I’ll just repeat for the tape. The question is: what do we mean when we say, “Don’t expect miracles?” Miracle would be you say the magic words, the magic mantra, or the magic practice and then, all of a sudden, all your problems are gone. We would be able to actually get rid of all our recurring problems and so on without putting in a great deal of work and effort and easy. Or that some outside force is going to save us; we don’t have to do anything ourselves. Those are miracles. Generally, they don’t happen. That’s something very central in Buddhism: things don’t happen without a cause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just one last word, one last example. There was a great lama, one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and he said that – the author of this little text wrote a huge, huge book on the topic – and he said, this was a very old man, he said, “I’ve read the book hundreds of times and every time I read it, I get a deeper understanding of it.” He read it several hundred times in his lifetime – that’s the way to study the Dharma.

Ultima pregunta, last question.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The question is: What’s the difference between rebirth and reincarnation?

We don’t really have different words in Sanskrit or Tibetan, but I think that we can make a difference here. Reincarnation sounds as though there is some sort of entity, like a solid soul that’s going from one body into another body, whereas Buddhism is not speaking about that. We can use the word “rebirth” here to speak about a similar type of process, but without it being like a solid soul going from one body to another.

The example that I often use to illustrate this type of difference is: reincarnation would be like a conveyor belt at the airport, in which the soul, like a piece of luggage, is moving along this conveyor belt, from one body to another body, from one lifetime to another body. That would be like reincarnation, that’s not what Buddhism accepts.

In Buddhism, it’s more similar to a movie, in which there’s one frame following another frame. But don’t think of it in terms of one solid piece of plastic, it being projected almost like a hologram or something like that; it’s not that it’s projected anywhere onto a screen either. But it’s one moment after another moment after another moment, like a movie, but without there being anything solid that continues. So there’s continuity, but there’s nothing solid that goes on from one moment to another.

That is the case if we think about our body – there’s hardly any cell that is the same as the body of a baby that was prior, that we are the development of. There’s hardly one cell that’s the same, and yet there’s a continuity.

So it’s like that. And that was an ultima pregunta.

Question: Oh, just a small question.

Answer: Small question, small answer.

Question: What you said before about the frames, is each frame a life? Is that what you meant?

Answer: The question is: When we used the example of the frames, is each frame a life? It could be a life, it could be a moment. It doesn’t matter. It’s the same process.

So, at the end of a class or teaching or a meditation session, we end with what’s called the dedication. And this is like a certain amount of positive energy has built up, a certain understanding has built up during the time we’ve been together and if that were to end just with a bell ringing like in school, then the energy just totally drops.

It’s like when we are having a really deep, wonderful conversation with somebody and then the telephone rings. What we say is, “It’s really been wonderful and I hope that it will continue and go deeper and deeper more and more,” then we leave the energy sort of continuing. Now, if we just leave it like that, that positive force, that positive energy will just automatically contribute to making our samsaric existence a little bit better, called “good karma.” So we don’t really want this just to act as a cause for our being able to discuss it over a cup of coffee with our friends and everybody thinking how clever we are that we’ve gone to a lecture.

We don’t want it to act as a cause just for that. Rather, what we want to do is we say, “May it act as a cause for reaching this goal that we’re aiming for: enlightenment for the benefit of all.” If we direct it that way, it will act as a cause for reaching that goal. In other words, it’s like if you typed something in the computer and automatically it’s going to be saved in the “samsara” folder. Now, we don’t want it to be saved in the “samsara” folder, so you have to actually very actively press the button to save it in the “enlightenment” folder. That’s what the dedication is all about.

So we think, whatever positive force has built up, whatever understanding we’ve gained, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Thank you very much.