The Basis for Bodhichitta: The First Two Lam-rim Stages

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This weekend I’d like to speak about bodhichitta, specifically about the two bodhichittas – relative and deepest – and the necessity or importance of developing both of them, and how we work with the two of them together.

First we need to understand the context within which we develop bodhichitta. If we can understand that context, then we will understand that it is a state of mind that we need to work ourselves up to in order to develop it sincerely. The states for working up to it are described in lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. The full name for lam-rim is the graded stages to enlightenment, and bodhichitta is a mind that is aimed at enlightenment.

Let us briefly look at these graded stages, through which we expand our motivation. We expand our scope so that eventually we can aim for enlightenment. We need to open up our minds, our scopes, so that we can, with relative bodhichitta, aim for enlightenment. And with deepest bodhichitta we can understand the reality of enlightenment, the reality of ourselves working for it, and how everything functions in order to be able to attain enlightenment. If we have a strange idea of what enlightenment is or how it exists, and so on, and we’re confused or have no idea of how you actually attain it, then how can we actually work to attain it, how can that function? So, we need understanding.

Now, the graded stages of the path, lam-rim, are a set of practices, insights, or realizations that we need to develop in order to basically open ourselves up to this highest goal. This is not the occasion to give a very detailed presentation of lam-rim, so I will just summarize some of the basic points. Perhaps most of you are already familiar with this lam-rim structure.

Initial Scope of Lam-rim

The initial level is that we are aiming for improving future rebirths. We are speaking about motivation, scopes of motivation. And it’s important to understand what the Tibetan word for motivation actually means. It has two aspects.

  • The first is the goal that we are aiming to attain;
  • and then there is some sort of an emotional drive that moves us to trying to attain that goal.

So, for each of the three scopes, we have a goal and we have some emotional state that we are trying to develop.

Working toward all of these goals is on the basis of appreciating the precious human life that we have: all the opportunities that we have and the temporary freedoms or respites that we have from the worst states that would prevent us from making any type of improvement in the quality of our lives. And we realize that we are going to die. Death comes to everybody and we have no idea when that might happen. So we could lose this opportunity that we have at any time. And the only thing that would be of help at the time of death are the positive habits and qualities that we’ve build up on our mental continuum, which will then continue into future lives as our instincts and talents that we’ll have into future lives.

If we’ve primarily built up negative and destructive habits of acting and speaking and thinking, this will lead to worst types of rebirths. We take that very seriously and we think about how awful it would be in some sort of unfortunate, so-called three worst types of rebirth realms – a hellish type of rebirth, or rebirth as some sort of wandering clutching ghost, or as an animal, being hunted and eaten alive by larger animals, and this is quite awful.

So, we develop a healthy sense of fear of this. You know, there are two types of fear. An unhealthy type of fear is fear in which you think that the situation is hopeless and there is no way to avoid it and you are helpless. So this is a very, very unsettling type of fear. But a healthy sense of fear, which is what we want to develop here, is based on realizing that there is a way to avoid this. So, it’s not hopeless. We’re not helpless. There is a way to avoid worst rebirths. So, we dread them; we don’t want to have these worst rebirths. We are afraid that that might happen. But that gives us a drive to follow what we know is the way to avoid it.

It’s like, if you know that you are sick and if there is no way to get cured, then of course you’re in a terrible state of fear and it is very horrible and unsettling. But, if you know that there is a treatment for your sickness, that you can avoid dying from it or whatever, then because you’re afraid of how horrible it would be if you didn’t follow the medical treatment, you would take the medical treatment. You would avoid a horrible consequence of your sickness.

So you see the difference. The first type of fear cripples you, so that you don’t do anything. And not doing anything, of course you’re going to have horrible consequences. And the other type of fear drives you to actually seek the treatment (whether we’re talking on a sickness level of physical sickness or we’re talking about mental problems) so that you avoid difficult consequences.

So, based on that healthy sense of fear, we see that there is a way to avoid worst rebirths and this is to put a safe and positive direction in our life. That’s known as “refuge,” and this is primarily to aim for stopping, true stopping of problems and their causes (if you get rid of the cause, you get rid of the problem). And to develop a true understanding, a “true path,” it’s called, it’s a pathway mind. It’s an understanding that will lead to a goal. And you strive to develop that, as an antidote, to achieve a true stopping of the causes of your problems. So I can get rid of my problems by understanding the cause, developing understanding of reality, which will get rid of the cause and that will bring about the true stopping of the problem.

So that true stopping and true path, that’s the third and fourth noble truths, and that’s the Dharma gem. We take refuge, we go in the direction of that Dharma gem. “Dharma” means a preventive measure. This is what we would try to attain to prevent suffering. The Buddhas are those who have attained this in full, and taught us to achieve this ourselves. And the arya Sangha are those who have attained this in part. And because they’re on various stages leading to the goal, they help us along the way, because they show us that it actually is possible to attain the full state of a Buddha.

The first thing that we do to avoid worst rebirths is to avoid the primary cause, which is our confusion about cause and effect. We don’t understand that destructive behavior leads to suffering and unhappiness. So, on this initial level we need to understand a little bit about our compulsive behavior. This is what karma is talking about. Karma itself is talking about compulsiveness, and that could be understood in many different ways. It’s the compulsive aspect of our behavior. And what is it driven by? It’s driven by our confusion about many, many things. It’s driven by our confusion about cause and effect, which then drives us to act destructively, because we think if we act destructively, it will bring us happiness, and it won’t. So we’re confused.

Like, for instance, if I steal, that this will make me happy, because then I’ll have money. So, it brings unhappiness, doesn’t it? Because then we’re nervous that we’re going to get caught. Or, if we do nothing about our problems, they’ll just go away by themselves. Like, if we do nothing about a sickness, it will just go away by itself. This is naivety, isn’t it?

So, at this initial level we exercise basically self-control – that when we feel like acting destructively, when I feel like yelling at you, or hitting you, or taking something of yours, or pushing myself on you – that I just don’t do it. We exercise self-control. And we exercise self-control because we understand that if we act out this destructive impulse, this impulse to act in a destructive way, it will be self-destructive. It will cause us problems and unhappiness.

Now this is the initial scope, the classic presentation. Now, if we look at this from a psychological point of view – after all we do have Western psychology, so we can’t ignore that, it can actually help us here to understand what’s going on in this process of self-development. In psychology we make a difference between a healthy ego and an inflated ego. In Buddhism we speak about the conventional self and the false self. The conventional self or the conventional “me” is to think of ourselves in terms of a healthy ego, a healthy self; and the false “me” is to think of ourselves as an inflated ego, an inflated “me.” That’s the difference in the two systems.

So, what is happening here in terms of this initial scope? What is happening here is that we are developing and reinforcing a sense of a healthy “me.” We are reinforcing this conventional self. This is very, very important. A healthy sense of self is necessary in order to take care of ourselves, in order to get up in the morning out of bed and deal with life. When somebody is in a deep depression, they don’t have a healthy sense of self, and they have not really reaffirmed this conventional “me.” And so they don’t get up out of bed, they don’t feel like doing anything – classic depression.

In terms of the process of development, or self-development, it’s very important to have a healthy sense of self (to reaffirm the conventional “me”) before you start to refute the false self (the inflated “me”), from the point of view of self-development. This we find it in classic psychology and you find it here in the lam-rim. That’s why teaching about voidness and about deconstruction of the inflated self, and so on, that you have with the understanding of voidness, is not something which is intended to be taught to children or to young teenagers. Young people have not yet established a sense of taking care of themselves and so on; they’re still undifferentiated in a sense from their parents. They need to differentiate themselves. We call it in English, in a very non-Buddhist terminology, “find themselves.” “I have to find myself” in order to establish a healthy sense of “me” and taking care of myself, taking responsibility.

So, if somebody who has not yet established a sense of taking care of themselves as a person, as an individual, and you try to tell them to deflate the whole idea that you have this ego and you have to get what you want and stuff like that, they’re left with nothing and you’ve destroyed them.

So, what do we accomplish with this initial scope, if you look at it with the point of view of the conventional “me,” how we’re dealing with the conventional “me?” We are developing a healthy sense of the conventional “me,” because we first appreciate the immense value of myself, of my human life that I have. And I take myself seriously. I take seriously that the way that I act is going to affect my experience, it’s going to affect how I feel. I really don’t want to be unhappy, and so I’m going to do something to avoid unhappiness and suffering in the future. And, in the Buddhist context, future means future lives, as well as later on in my lifetime of this life.

So now we have developed a healthy sense of “me,” that I’m going to take care of myself and take care about my future. It’s very important, before you start teaching about voidness and deconstructing projections and craziness about how you exist. So, I think that when we understand from a psychological point of view what’s going on with this initial scope, then we develop even more respect for the wisdom behind this whole lam-rim structure.

Intermediate Scope of Lam-rim

Okay, now, the intermediate scope. With an intermediate scope we are concerned about gaining liberation. We realize that even if we achieve some happiness – here we’re talking about future lives – our ordinary happiness is unsatisfying; it has some problems, it has serious problems. One of these problems is it doesn’t last. You always want more, and you get bored with it. You are happy doing something and then it changes to unhappiness – you’re bored, you want to do something else, or something new. And if there’s something that we are enjoying, like food, if it were true happiness, the more you ate at a time, the happier you would become. But obviously, you reach a limit and then eating more than that makes you very uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Staying with somebody – you’re very happy to be with them, but if you stay too long, then they start to annoy you, don’t they? So, this ordinary happiness is very problematic. The technical term for that is “the suffering of change.”

And what’s really horrible is that all of this goes up and down all the time. So you never know how you are going to feel in the next moment. One moment you’re feeling happy, then you feel unhappy, and your moods go up and down. This is really quite awful; and more than just being awful, it’s boring – because it just goes on and on and on, it repeats. Throughout this lifetime our moods go up and down, up and down, and in future lives as well. That’s one of the characteristics of samsara, it goes up and down. So we want to look deeper to understand why is this happening. Why do my moods go up and down all the time? Why am I happy sometimes? Why am I unhappy sometimes?

Now we have to look a little bit more deeply at the compulsiveness of our behavior – karma. And we see that what is driving our compulsiveness is our disturbing emotions and our disturbing attitudes. The disturbing emotions are basically revolving around a false idea of “me.” Now we start to think of this inflated “me.” And before we really go and analyze what is that confusion about the “me,” if we think just in more general terms then we might think, “I am the centre of the universe,” “I’m the most important one,” “I should always have my way,” which of course is impossible.

But, anyway, because it’s impossible, how do we experience that? We experience that in terms of insecurity. We are trying to make secure something that can’t be made secure. You’re never going to always get your way. Come on, give up. This is absurd. But then we get disturbing emotions, because we think that there are certain ways to make us secure. So, “If I can get things to me, if I can just attract things to me, that somehow this is going to make me secure.” So, we have longing desire for things that we don’t have; attachment to things that we do have, we don’t want to let go; and greed, no matter what we have, we want more. And we think that that will make me secure, but of course it never works.

Or we think, “If I can just get things away from me, that I don’t like, that will make me secure.” So, we have anger, hostility – grrrr, like a dog growling, “Get it away from me.” But even if we get one thing away from us, then something else annoys us and we want to get that away from us. So we’re never secure. Or we have naivety – we just put a wall around us, naive about everything that’s going on, that somehow that will make us secure inside this wall, but that’s also a fantasy. We stick our head into a hole in the ground, like an ostrich, and all our problems will go away. This is naivety. It’s called denial, from a psychological point of view.

So, in any case, because of these disturbing emotions, we act in a destructive way. Compulsively, we cling to something, or compulsively we yell and try to get it away. Or compulsively, we just act in a completely insensitive manner, in terms of that the way that I act is going to have any consequences on you or on me. And acting in a destructive way, based on these disturbing emotions, that brings us unhappiness.

But, there are also disturbing attitudes. Disturbing attitudes underlie both destructive behavior and constructive behavior. Without getting too complicated here, let me just give an example, a more general example, of a disturbing attitude. This would be, for instance, being a perfectionist. “I have to be good,” “I have to be perfect.” And then, being a perfectionist, we’re never satisfied, “I’m never good enough” and “I’m always trying to please everybody,” and “I’m trying to do things perfectly.” That somehow, “If I can get everything perfect, I’ll be happy, I’ll feel secure”.

So, what happens? This could be a perfectionist in terms of your work; it could be perfectionist in terms of how your hair looks; it could be perfectionist in terms of keeping your house clean, you know, these compulsive cleaners of their house. It brings us our ordinary happiness – your house is now clean and all the dishes are clean and so on – and you feel happy, but it doesn’t last, does it? So, the suffering of change: the house gets dirty again, because it’s impossible to be a perfectionist. It’s impossible to be perfect. So, it’s very neurotic and it brings our ordinary happiness, but it’s a problem, isn’t it? And we can see that underlying it is again insecurity, isn’t it? “I’m insecure, so if I can be perfect, I’ll be secure” – that’s the disturbing attitude.

So, what is underlying our compulsive destructive behavior is these disturbing emotions. And what’s underlying both compulsive destructive behavior and compulsive positive behavior (like always cleaning your house) is these disturbing attitudes. And this is completely boring, isn’t it? Because it just brings the uncontrollably recurring cycle of happiness, unhappiness, up and down. And, what is underlying it, both these disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes, is our misconception about how we exist and how others exist.

Now, what is the misconception about how we exist? There are many, many levels of misconception. And, what we need to do is to start to deconstruct them, step by step. Again, I don’t want to go into great detail here. But the first step is to think that there is a “me” that is not affected by anything and which can somehow be liberated from all of this. And so it will be completely separated from a body and mind and will just merge with the universe, something like that. This is something that perhaps we were taught by a different philosophical system or religious system. It’s usually spoken of in terms of atman, which is closest to our concept of a soul. So we think that there is a “me” separate from a body and mind and it can exist separate from a body and mind, and this is what I’m trying to make secure, but it doesn’t work, because that’s not how we exist. But, based on that, we could have these mechanisms of disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes, based on believing that that’s how we exist.

Then there’s an automatically arising confusion about our self, which is that there is a “me” that can be known separately from a body and mind.

Now, this is very interesting, because you have to identify what we’re talking about here. This first one, this “me” that is separate from a body and mind, would be like, for instance, you see somebody and they are young and they have a beautiful body or a strong body, and you think, “Oh, I wish I had a body like that.” Or somebody is very intelligent, “I wish I had a mind like that” – as if there were a “me” that you could separate from this body and mind and put into that other body. But we think like that, don’t we? I mean, it’s very subtle, actually. Or, “I have to control my mind” – the perfectionist type of thing – as if there were a “me” separate from the mind that could then control the mind.

Or this more subtle one like for instance, “I see Zhenya.” Well, what am I seeing? How could you possibly see Zhenya without seeing a body, right? “But I know Zhenya.” Well, what do you know? I mean, how could you know Zhenya without knowing something else at the same time – the name or something about them? That’s impossible, isn’t it? The example that I always loved to use is the one of “I want people to love me for myself – not for my looks, not for my money, not for my position in life, but to love me for myself.” As if there was someone that could be loved, without also loving all these other things.

So, in this intermediate scope we understand this whole mechanism which is driving rebirth. Remember, we’re talking in terms of rebirth, and how it just goes on and on and on because of this unawareness of how we exist; this confusion that brings disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes, that brings the compulsiveness of our behavior (either positive or negative), and that drives uncontrollably recurring rebirth – that’s samsara. The mechanism is described by the twelve links of dependent arising – the beginning sequence of that. And this is really boring – this uncontrollably recurring rebirth, uncontrollably recurring problems, up and down, up and down. And that boredom with it brings on this determination to be free – “I have had enough already” – and that’s usually translated as “renunciation.”

And, what have we developed here? We have already with the initial scope gotten a healthy sense of “me” that I’m going to take care of in terms of my future. And then we see, “Well, but my problems are coming from a misconception about ‘me,’ about how I exist, so I have to deconstruct that.” I still take care of myself, but on the basis of a healthy “me,” not in terms of this false “me,” this inflated “me.” Because when I think in terms of an inflated “me,” I just bring problems to myself and uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

To overcome this syndrome – uncontrollably recurring rebirth and all the problems that come with it – we have to get rid of that confusion about basically ourselves and others. We need discriminating awareness to discriminate between reality and what is impossible; to discriminate between what types of behavior and so on we need to accept and what we need to reject. It’s called a “higher training” because it’s aiming for a higher goal than just ordinary intellectual information, for example. We want to develop this in order to gain liberation.

But, to develop that discrimination, which is basically developing our intelligence, then we need concentration. If you can’t stay concentrated and focused on reality and then cutting off what are our projections or fantasy, it’s not going to help. So, you need concentration.

To develop concentration we need to be able to discipline our minds, so that we don’t have mental wandering, we don’t have flightiness of mind off to objects that we have great desire for; we don’t have dullness or sleepiness. So, you need to have the discipline to get rid of all these faults of concentration. But it’s very difficult to discipline your mind, isn’t it? A very good example is when you are lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, and your mind is racing with thoughts. What’s the Buddhist advice? Stop thinking! Just stop, and then you’ll be able to fall asleep. Well, thank you very much, but that’s not very easy to do, is it? Stop worrying! Okay, I’ll stop. I won’t even think about it anymore. That’s hard to do.

So, to develop that discipline, to be able to discipline our minds, we need to first cultivate discipline in terms of our behavior, the way that we act and the way that we speak. So, we need a training in ethical self-discipline first. If we notice that we are feeling like saying something really angry at somebody, or really stupid, you just don’t do it. You have the discipline to stop. That will give us the strength, when we really develop that, to be able to discipline our minds, so that we don’t act compulsively – compulsive thinking, compulsive misbehaving. But remember, we need this discriminating awareness about how we exist, otherwise the discipline is this very stiff perfectionism, that “I have to be perfect,” “I can’t misbehave.” And that becomes very neurotic. So, better than misbehaving, but being stiff as the perfectionist – you know, “I always have to have myself under control” – brings its own problems, doesn’t it? Particularly in terms of relating to others.

That’s the intermediate scope. Our aim is liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth and all its uncontrollably recurring problems – the up and down, happy and unhappy, etc. And we’re moved to try to attain that goal, because basically it’s boring. We’re just fed up with it. So we have this determination to be free. And that determination to be free has to be a fairly calm state of mind. It’s not that we are angry with ourselves because we’re so stupid for doing this. We are just fed up with it.

Okay, so that’s our intermediate scope. Perhaps that’s enough for our morning session. We’ll get to the advanced scope after lunch, which will then bring us into our discussion of bodhichitta. And we will see how this initial and intermediate scope has prepared us for developing bodhichitta.


Let us spend a few moments before we break, just trying to review and think over. What have we heard? What have we learned? Does this make any sense to us? And particularly, if we have already studied lam-rim, which I believe that many of you have, does this help us to understand and appreciate a little bit better the structure that’s involved here and the process of development that it describes?

We want to take care of ourselves, because we really are afraid of more unhappiness and suffering in the future, and we really don’t want that. So, based on understanding, we first exercise self-control. But then we see that, “I want to take care of myself further, so that I don’t experience, not just unhappiness, but this happiness that doesn’t really satisfy, and it goes up and down and up and down. To take care of myself, I have to not just exercise self-control, but I need to go deeper and understand, why am I acting in a compulsive way? I’m acting in a compulsive way because I am projecting onto this conventional “me,” that I exist in terms of this inflated “me” that can somehow jump out of this body and get another body, or that can be known by itself and be loved by itself, and so on. That’s an inflated “me.”

So, you see the development here. First we develop self-control, based on taking care of ourselves. But then, in order to develop further, we need to be able to understand and analyze, “Why am I acting in the way that I am acting?” It’s not just to control ourselves, but understand why I’m acting like this. So analysis. “Why, in my relationships with others, am I so compulsive?” And always say, “Why don’t you love me?” “Why don’t you call me?” “Do you love me?” “Tell me that you love me.” Why is that so compulsive? What’s driving that?

It’s not just a matter of self-control to, well, say to ourselves, “Shut up, don’t say that” [and control ourselves because we know that our saying those things] is going to drive the other person away. [We have to go deeper.] What’s underlying it [this compulsiveness] is basically unawareness, confusion. I think that there’s this “me,” this solid “me,” that wants to be loved for itself. And if I can get you to always say “I love you,” that somehow that’ll make me secure. But it never makes me secure. We don’t want them to say it once and then, “Oh, yeah, fine, now I know you love me;” we’re insecure – again, and again, and again. So what’s underlying that compulsiveness? It’s this insecurity, insecurity about “me.”

So we need to go beyond self-control. We need to be able to then analyze very clearly what’s going on in each moment of our experience in terms of our mental state; the compulsiveness that’s there with our behavior; the various emotions and understanding that accompanies each moment. If we can deconstruct this and see all these different aspects, then with understanding we will be able to get so-called “liberated” from all the problems that our confusion is bringing on.

So, we really are becoming much more mature, aren’t we, through this developmental sequence. And we’re becoming more mature also on an emotional level, because with initial scope we basically were motivated by fear – we don’t want to suffer and be unhappy. And now in this intermediate level we’re basically bored with the whole process, so much more calm, much more mature. And okay, “I will take care of it. What’s the problem?” So, from many points of view we are growing up, spiritually and emotionally. Let’s just digest this for a few moments.


Okay, thank you.