Lam-rim: Dharma-Lite and Real Thing Versions

Preliminaries to Listening to the Teachings

Let us begin this session with some preliminaries. First, in order to quiet down, we focus on the breath. We breathe normally through the nose. If our minds are very distracted, we count the cycle of breath. If our minds are fairly quiet, we simply focus on the sensation of the breath coming in and out of the nose.

Then we reaffirm our motivation, which means we reaffirm what we are aiming for. We are coming here as a step of going in a safe and positive direction in life, the direction of working on ourselves to overcome our problems and their causes and to realize all of our potentials. We want to learn about these graded stages of the path, the lam-rim, to help us to achieve this goal. We can be doing this as part of a “Dharma-Lite” scope, in which case we are interested in improving this life as stepping-stone to eventually improving future lives, and eventually gaining liberation and enlightenment. That is provided, of course, that we have a rudimentary understanding of the meaning of future lives, liberation and enlightenment, or at least an acknowledgement of the importance of understanding them and the intention to work on trying to understand them. Or we can be doing this with a “Real Thing Dharma” intention: to achieve liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth and reach the enlightened state of a Buddha so that we can help everybody else achieve the same. Regardless of which scope we are at, we want to do this not only to benefit ourselves, but to be of best help to everyone.

[See: Dharma-Lite Versus the Real Thing Dharma]

More specifically, we are here to learn about the graded stages of the path as a way to go in the safe direction of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In other words, we are going in the direction of the Dharma refuge. The Dharma refuge refers to the true stopping (true cessation) of our problems and their causes and to the true pathway minds (true path), namely the true understanding of reality that will bring about true stoppings and which will allow us to realize and use all our potentials fully. Learning about the graded stages will help us to go in this direction, the way that the Buddhas have done in full and the Arya Sangha (those who have perceived reality nonconceptually) have done in part. We do so with compassion, wishing to be able to help others overcome their true problems and their true causes. To help them as much as possible, we need to become Buddhas. Thus, we also have the bodhichitta motivation. In short, we want to learn about the stages of the path to be of best help to everyone.

With such a goal in mind, we offer the seven-limb prayer. First, we imagine making prostration. We throw ourselves fully in this direction with respect for those who have gone in this direction and actually achieved these goals, with respect for our own future enlightenment that we are aiming to achieve with bodhichitta, and with respect for our own Buddha-nature potentials that will enable us to achieve that goal.

We make offerings. We are willing to give everything – our time, our energy, our hearts – to be able to develop ourselves further and further so that we can truly be of greatest possible help to others.

In the manner of the Sakya master Chogyal Phagpa (Chos-rgyal ’Phags-pa), we make the offerings of concentration, which refers to offering various aspects of our practice. We offer for the benefit of others everything we have read and studied, and we offer them in the form of water. Whatever we study, we want to use to be able to help others. Next, all the knowledge that we have gained from our reading and study, we offer in the form of flowers. The discipline to meditate on the basis of this knowledge, we offer as the fragrant smoke of incense. The insights that we gain from that disciplined practice, we offer in the form of the light of candles and butter lamps. The firm conviction that we gain from these insights, we offer in the form of refreshing cologne water. The concentration that we are able to apply on the basis of this firm conviction, which is free of doubts, we offer in the form of food. Then our explanations to others, based on all of this, we offer in the form of music.

Next, being perfectly honest with ourselves, we openly admit that we have difficulties with following this type of path in life. Often we don’t feel like practicing. We don’t understand why we need to practice. We get angry, we act selfishly, we become greedy and attached, etc. Sometimes we don’t really know what we are doing with our lives. We regret that. We really wish that we would not be like that. We will try our best to overcome and not repeat these things. So we reaffirm the positive direction we are going in and, whatever we learn about these graded paths, we will try to apply as opponents to overcome the difficulties and problems we face.

We rejoice in the fact that we have Buddha-nature, we have the ability to develop and overcome our difficulties and their causes, and to realize our potentials. The nature of the mind is pure. Our difficulties or confusion are not very deep. They are like the smell of tobacco on the breath of a smoker. They are artificial. They are just there temporarily; they will pass. They are not our deepest nature. We all have Buddha-nature; we all have the ability to develop ourselves. We rejoice in that.

We also rejoice in the Buddhas and great masters who have been able to realize all of the potentials of their Buddha-nature. We rejoice in the fact that they have taught us how to actually follow that path ourselves: “That is really wonderful. Thank you!”

We request the teachings: “Please, I want to learn. I really need to learn. I want to learn to be able to help others and myself.”

We ask them to remain: “I am serious about this. Don’t go away. Please don’t pass away. I want to go all the way to enlightenment. I am not just a Dharma tourist.”

Finally, whatever understanding and positive force are built up by these preliminary practices and by listening to the following teachings and practicing them, may they act as causes for becoming a Buddha so we can truly be of greatest help to everyone. May they not be merely causes to improve our samsara.

We then make the conscious decision to listen with concentration. If our attention wanders, we will bring it back. If we become sleepy, we will try to wake ourselves up. To help our minds to be clearer, we correct our posture and sit up straight, but without being stiff.

Then to lift our energies if they are a bit low, we focus on the point between the eyebrows, with the eyes looking upward and the head staying level.

Then finally, if we are feeling a bit nervous or tense, we need to ground our energies. To do that, we focus on our navels with our eyes looking downward but the head staying level and, as we breathe in normally, we hold the breath until we need to breathe out.

If we really understand the essence of these preliminaries and don’t just do them as an empty ritual, we can really put our hearts into them and get a great deal of inspiration from them. They are not a devotional act of worshipping anyone, but a practice that really moves our energies in a positive direction and makes us receptive to working on ourselves, learning, and making progress. That is the whole point. That is why they are called “preliminaries.” When we are studying and working with these graded stages of the path, we always emphasize starting a meditation session with these types of preliminaries. They make us truly receptive. We really want to try to understand something, to learn something. So, through these preliminary practices, we put our hearts into it. Even if we are unable to do any further type of meditation, these preliminaries themselves are very helpful as a daily practice.

Organizing Buddha’s Teachings

The topic for this evening is the structure of the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. More precisely, lam-rim means the graduated pathway minds; namely, the progressive levels of understanding that act as pathways for bringing us to the goals of liberation and enlightenment. But we can speak of them simply as graded stages of the path.

Where do the teachings on lam-rim come from? Well, Buddha taught many different topics, and these divide into the sutra and the tantra methods. Sutra methods are the basic methods. The Sanskrit word “sutra” means a theme of practice. The tantras are advanced teachings, based on the sutras, which enable us to realize the aspects of our Buddha-nature by putting together all the various sutra teachings simultaneously.

Buddha taught the sutra methods in varying ways to different disciples. Many of the teachings were in the form of dialogues: the Buddha speaking, others asking questions, the Buddha giving answers, and so on. Because of that, the sutras don’t look very systematic. Things that Buddha said in one place seem to contradict what he said elsewhere. It is difficult to see how they all fit together. Also, because nothing was written down at the time of the Buddha, the tradition was to memorize and recite what he said. So there is a great deal of repetition in the sutras, to help people remember the important points.

Moreover, it’s not so obvious from the sutras themselves how to put the teachings into practice. Because of this, the great Indian masters wrote various commentaries on the sutras, explaining in more detail what Buddha intended and organizing the material so it would be little easier to digest and put into practice. For example, there are five texts by Maitreya, the future Buddha. His teachings were revealed to Asanga, who then wrote them down. In them, we start to get the structure that we will see later on as the methods for presenting Buddha’s teachings evolved. This structure is some sort of introduction, a brief presentation of the teaching, an elaborate presentation, and then a résumé. The elaborate presentations are various lists. Buddha himself listed things, so we should not think it is totally a Tibetan invention. We find this type of structure in many of the presentations of the lam-rim material.

Certain basic themes are the fundamental sutra training, and there have been many different ways of organizing them. We have “the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma,” for example, which are found in the Nyingma tradition, the “four themes of Gampopa” in the Kagyu tradition, and the “parting from the four clingings” in the Sakya tradition. The Sakya tradition sometimes also orders the same material according to the four noble truths. In the Kadam tradition starting with Atisha, and after him in the Gelug tradition, and in the Shangpa Kagyu tradition as well, there is the presentation of this material organized according to the three scopes of motivation. This is what we call the “lam-rim.” We should not think that the lam-rim is the exclusive way of presenting the material contained in it; there are many other ways of presenting the same teachings.

Three Graded Scopes of Motivation

What is the special benefit of presenting the material – precious human life, refuge, karma, renunciation, bodhichitta, voidness, and so on – in the lam-rim context of three graded scopes of motivation? I think one of the main advantages is that it provides access to the teachings by suggesting steps that precede “the Real Thing Dharma.” Let me elaborate on this.

When we talk about Buddhism, we are talking about refuge, what I like to call “taking a safe direction in life.” What actually indicates this direction? The Dharma Gem. The Dharma Gem refers to the third and fourth noble truths, namely true stoppings of problems and their causes and true pathway minds of non-conceptual realization of voidness. The Buddhas have achieved these in full on their mental continuums. In other words, the Buddhas have on their mental continuums the full set of true stoppings and true pathway minds. The arya Sangha, on the other hand, have started to attain some of these true stoppings and true pathway minds, but they do not have a complete set.

For example, if we think of a malfunctioning old-style TV with tubes inside, the removal of faulty tubes would be analogous to true stoppings and the installation of the most functional tubes would be analogous to true pathway minds. With enlightenment, Buddhas have gotten rid of all the faulty tubes and put in all of the most functional ones. Arhats have gotten rid of only some of the faulty tubes and replaced them: that is liberation. With the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, we become an arya and rid ourselves of the very first faulty tubes and replace them. That entire range of attainments, from that of an arya, through that of an arhat, to that of a Buddha, constitutes the Dharma refuge.

The four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma – precious human life, death and impermanence, karma, and the disadvantages of samsara – are talking about turning our minds to the Dharma refuge. Specifically, they concern the steps for gaining renunciation, the wish for liberation. If we translate the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma into the lam-rim context, we can see that they start with the intermediate level motivation: with renunciation, working for liberation. The four thoughts are then always followed by the teachings on developing bodhichitta and the understanding of voidness, in order to gain enlightenment. The unique advantage of the lam-rim presentation of graded stages of the path is that it has an initial level of motivation, which is working to benefit future lives as a stepping-stone for working for liberation and then enlightenment. Thus, it indicates a stepping-stone for working toward the actual Buddhist goals of liberation and enlightenment.

In the Sakya tradition of parting from the four clingings, we also have turning the mind from clinging to this life and thinking of future lives, so this is not unique to the lam-rim presentation. But, the fact that working to benefit future lives is seen as one of the three levels of motivation in the lam-rim indicates it much more clearly as a stepping-stone. I think this is very significant for us Westerners in approaching the Dharma.

Dharma-Lite as a Stepping-Stone

In lam-rim, the advanced scope of motivation is a scope that is exclusive to Mahayana, but shared in common with Mahayana sutra and Mahayana tantra. It refers to working for enlightenment. The intermediate scope is shared in common with all Buddhist traditions, both Hinayana and Mahayana, namely working for liberation. The initial scope is simply working to improve future lives, and this is a step shared in common with many other religions as well.

Many Buddhist texts say that the border between Dharma and non-Dharma is whether or not we do something to benefit our future lives. Moreover, a Buddhist is explained as someone who puts a safe direction in his or her life, someone who goes for refuge. As we have just mentioned, the actual refuge is the Dharma Gem, and the Dharma Gem refers to liberation and enlightenment or to the arya stages approaching liberation and enlightenment. How do these points fit together? The answer lies in the fact that the refuge teachings are presented in the initial scope.

When we talk about working for future lives as being the dividing line of Dharma, I don’t think we could say that a Christian’s working to go to heaven or a Muslim’s working to go to paradise is Buddhadharma. The fact that refuge is in this initial scope seems to me to indicate that when we talk about benefiting future lives as the boundary line delineating Dharma, we are specifically talking about benefiting future lives as a stepping-stone to be able to continue on the path to work toward becoming an arya and then gaining liberation and, eventually, enlightenment. Looking at it this way, we no longer have this seeming contradiction that benefiting future lives is a goal shared with non-Buddhist religions and yet is the dividing line for the Buddha’s Dharma.

The initial scope motivation is a stepping-stone in the actual direction of working toward attaining true stoppings, the Dharma Gem. It is from this presentation of the initial scope as a stepping-stone that I derive the concept of “Dharma-Lite” as yet a further stepping-stone prior to that. I think that the structure of the lam-rim allows for a stage before the initial scope, which can allow much easier access for Westerners to enter the graded paths. It is the level of motivation with which we work to improve this lifetime, as a stepping-stone to working to improve future lives. With Dharma-Lite, we work with that level of motivation before we develop even the initial level of lam-rim motivation.

Dharma is like a moving bus and it is very difficult for us to just jump on. If we look at the lam-rim, the initial scope goal of improving future lives assumes a basic understanding and belief in future lives. The traditional texts don’t even bother to explain the existence of past and future lives or to try to prove their existence. It is assumed that everybody has this belief already. It is very difficult for Westerners who don’t come from this background to just accept past and future lives, let alone that they have no beginning. The traditional Buddhist texts do not point out this difficulty, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains it like this orally.

Just as the initial scope is common with non-Buddhist religions, if we go to an earlier step, to the Dharma-Lite step, working to improve this lifetime is shared in common with Mahayana and Hinayana, therapies, secular philosophy, humanistic philosophy and so on, as well as with other religions. It is a broader common base. A practice becomes a Dharma-Lite one if it is done as a stepping-stone toward working for future lives, liberation and enlightenment, within the general structure of refuge and safe direction. We can start to go in that direction through Dharma-Lite practice. If the actual safe direction is a highway, Dharma-Lite is the entrance ramp onto the highway.

The Meaning of Motivation

The structure of graded levels of motivation is very important. Motivation is not referring to the emotional reasons for doing something. We are talking about our aim, our goal. What is our intention behind studying and practicing; what goal are we intending to reach by means of them? The structure of the lam-rim indicates a process of growth and we need to start at the beginning. A big mistake that many people make is that they skip over the initial levels and just go straight for the advanced level, Mahayana. They proudly claim, “I am working for all sentient beings to reach liberation and enlightenment.” However, if we don’t have the initial levels of motivation before this, it trivializes working for all sentient beings and makes our practice Dharma-Lite. We are not really working for all sentient beings to reach enlightenment, because we don’t even know what that means; we have no idea what enlightenment means. We are certainly not working to liberate every insect in the universe from uncontrollable rebirth if we don’t even believe in rebirth! If we examine ourselves honestly, we are working to help only some beings, and we are helping them merely to improve their lives, in this life. Although such a motivation is extremely positive and beneficial; nevertheless, to call such a motivation an advanced one of Mahayana belittles Mahayana. I think the emphasis really has to be on developing the aim of each level of lam-rim motivation very sincerely from our hearts, one at a time, in progressive order, without pretending that we have a more advanced level of motivation when in fact we do not.

Doing Dharma-Lite and the initial scope as stepping-stones means that we have a very clear appreciation of the importance of understanding rebirth, liberation, and enlightenment. We acknowledge that we do not understand these things now, but we recognize the importance of understanding them and we intend fully to try to understand them. If we are not quite ready to accept rebirth and so on, we put them on hold, but we are moving in the direction of understanding them.

We could go through all of the lam-rim teachings with a Dharma-Lite or even an initial level motivation. There is no problem with that. Altruism, generosity, helping others, understanding the disturbing emotions, some idea of voidness, and so on are all helpful for this life, aren’t they? We will not be able to have the most profound understanding of these things without the element of beginningless rebirth and so on, but we can have a Dharma-Lite version of them.

For example, without past and future lives, karma (the teachings on behavioral cause and effect) does not really make sense. This is because we may act in a positive way all our life and then get killed in an earthquake. Such things don’t make sense in terms of just this life. That doesn’t mean that the teachings on karma are not helpful in this lifetime. They are. But we will not get a deep understanding of karma unless we think of past and future lives. Further, without understanding rebirth, recognizing all beings as having been our mothers is a bit absurd, and a lot of the bodhichitta teachings are based on that. Similarly, unless we really work with the idea that the mind has no beginning and no end, we cannot really understand voidness deeply. Beginningless mind implies rebirth, doesn’t it?

Sincerely feeling the motivation at each level is crucial. Just skipping by these initial levels of motivation is missing the real crux of the lam-rim. Take the initial scope topics, for example. Precious human life, death and impermanence, and so on derive straight from the sutras, and the various Tibetan Buddhist traditions and masters present them in many different organization schemes. They are not unique to the lam-rim. What is unique to lam-rim is the presentation of them within the structure of graded scopes of motivation.

Understanding the Context of the Lam-rim

The different Tibetan traditions explain the healthy relation with the spiritual teacher in different places in their presentations of lam-rim-type material. For example, the lam-rims of the Gelug tradition place the healthy relationship before the presentation of the graded stages.

As an aside, I need to point out that the lam-rim is not just one text. Within the Gelug tradition, there are seven or eight major versions of the lam-rim. Tsongkhapa himself wrote three versions. There are also versions by the Third Dalai Lama, the Fifth Dalai Lama, the Fourth Panchen Lama, and the Fifth Panchen Lama. One of the most recent ones is Pabongka’s. There are several in between the Fifth Panchen Lama’s and Pabongka’s texts as well. We could get into a whole discussion of the historical development of lam-rim, but we will not do that here. One significant point, however, is that the style of presentation has changed over time.

As a further aside, there is something I think can be helpful that I need to point out about Pabongka Rinpoche’s version of lam-rim, as written down by his disciple Trijang Rinpoche. Although it was the first one translated into English and is thus quite popular, it is a rather fundamentalist approach to the lam-rim. It is fundamentalist Gelugpa. That is not saying it is good or bad, it is just identifying what it is. Don’t think that it is representative of the entire lam-rim tradition or of the entire Gelug tradition. There are some very heavy statements in it against the Bonpos, for example. Also, the emphasis on such things as being reborn as an animal with hooves if you do prostration with your hands clenched reflects a fundamentalist approach. It is not up to us to judge whether something is good or bad, but just to know what it is. For a lot of people, fundamentalism is appropriate, for others it is not. The mainstream Gelug lam-rim, however, is Tsongkhapa’s Lam-rim chen-mo. If we want to know the Gelug tradition, this is it. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes this version. It too is now available in English.

To get back to my point, at the beginning of the Gelug lam-rim are preliminaries and the relationship with the spiritual teacher. In some versions, the relationship with the spiritual teacher comes first and then the preliminaries, in others it is reversed. In any case, why do these two come first? If we think about it, it is very clear that this manner of presentation is not for newcomers who come into a Dharma center knowing nothing about Buddhism. How could a newcomer begin with prostration, refuge, bodhichitta and the seven-limb prayer? Is a newcomer supposed to see the teacher as a Buddha as soon as he or she walks into the center? It is obvious that Western newcomers were not the intended audience of the lam-rim. What gives it away even more is that in the discussion of seeing the teacher as a Buddha, the lam-rim texts quote tantras, “Vajradhara said…” Something is going on here that we need to understand.

Where were these teachings originally given and what was the context? The audience was monks who were all totally committed to the Buddhist path, with vows and so on. They were being prepared to take a tantric empowerment, an initiation. Conferring a tantric empowerment requires beforehand giving a review of the sutra path, which is the foundation for tantra practice. So, the lam-rim was given as a review of the basic sutra teachings for committed monks who were about to take tantric empowerment. Also, the audience had come from a cultural context in which rebirth was accepted; they already had a certain relationship with the teacher; and they were already prepared to take a tantric empowerment with this teacher. In that context, all the teachings on the relationship with the teacher make sense. And the preliminaries obviously make sense because they were monks; they were doing these types of rituals anyway.

Another clue is that Tsongkhapa calls the healthy relationship with the spiritual teacher the “root of the path.” The first thing that grows in a plant is not the root: a plant grows from the seed. He does not call the relationship with the teacher “the seed of the path.” When something has grown already, the root is what supports it and provides its sustenance. A spiritual teacher is not the thing out of which the whole path grows. So although the relationship with the spiritual teacher is first in Tsongkhapa’s presentation, this does not mean that it comes first for newcomers. Tsongkhapa is presenting the path for people who are already on the path. For them the support, the sustenance for the path, is the relationship that they already have with the teacher. That is why he puts it first.

These are my initial thoughts about what we need to know about the structure of the lam-rim; namely, why it is in graded stages, that it is possible to have a stage before the traditional three graded stages, that the way the traditional three stages are arranged allows for this additional preliminary stage, and what the structure tells us in terms of the relation with the teacher and the preliminaries.

What Is Required Before Entering the Traditional Initial Level of Lam-rim

What understandings and practices do we need to have before entering the first level of motivation of the lam-rim?

Sonam Tsemo (bSod-nams rtse-mo), one of the five founders of the Sakya lineage, gives a list of three things needed to enter the teachings. The first is a recognition of suffering. Second is confidence that it is possible to get out of the suffering. And third, that the Dharma indicates the way to do that. If we think about it, this makes perfect sense. If we don’t see any problems in our life, we will certainly not look to the Dharma. If we see problems but don’t think there is any way out of them, we also will not look to the Dharma. And if we don’t think that the Dharma offers a solution, we will certainly not look to it for one. These three things are what make us actually want to find and follow the Buddhist path. The implication of the third point is that we need to have some study of the Dharma first in order to have any indication that it offers a viable solution. So, before we can actually put our hearts into the Dharma, we need to learn something about it.

Can you please elaborate on the analogy of the seed and the root in relation to the spiritual teacher? What is the seed? How does it develop into the root? If you are saying that we must have some knowledge of the Dharma before committing ourselves to it, how is it that we commit ourselves to a spiritual teacher at the beginning?

Let me give an example. The three points Sonam Tsemo explained are like a seed. Entering the Dharma will grow from them. But to understand how a root can grow from that seed, let’s look at Sonam Tsemo’s third point – the necessity of having some exposure to the Dharma and some conviction in its ability to offer a solution to our problems in life.

In my own personal experience, I studied Buddhism for seven years in university, very professionally, studying the major classical languages. Although I had an instinctive feeling that it was the right direction, it was really only when I went to India and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and then afterwards some of his teachers, that I saw that Buddhism was alive as a living tradition. It was not just a dead subject in texts, which professors were trying to figure out like a crossword puzzle. That was the approach in the 60’s. Here was a living master; the teachings were alive; and following them could actually bring results. What I experienced was the main purpose and function of a teacher as explained in the traditional texts: to give inspiration. Seeing that Buddhist practice was possible and alive was what brought me to the point of actually engaging in the practice and putting my heart into Buddhism.

For this reason, the spiritual teacher is very helpful and necessary for really getting into the teachings. I don’t think we can really get into them with our hearts just on the basis of reading books about the Dharma, although we could be drawn in that direction based on books and derive a little inspiration. The strongest inspiration comes from the living example of a teacher. Then learning from a teacher (Sonam Tsemo’s third point) as a seed becomes a root, since inspiration from the spiritual teacher sustains us along the entire path. But for the encounter with a spiritual teacher to become a seed and then the root, the teacher needs to be a truly qualified one, not a charismatic charlatan.

If we just meet an unqualified teacher who “blows our mind” and we know nothing about Buddhism, is that sufficient for entering the path? I would argue that it is not. Just as reading books about Buddhism without a living example can lead us in the direction of the Dharma and give us some inspiration, so can just meeting a teacher, even an unqualified one. But our going in that direction will not be stable unless we learn something from the book or teacher, not just become inspired.

Which is more dangerous, starting with just reading about Buddhism or starting with just being impressed by a Dharma teacher? They both have their dangers. If we just read, we can get into our own interpretation of the Dharma which may have nothing to do with the actual teachings. If we just follow a teacher, there is a big danger of falling prey to someone who inspires us greatly, but is not really qualified. We can be misled. Even if the person is qualified, we may project so much fantasy onto him or her that we are misled by our fantasies.

Regardless of how we start, we need to try to have both study and inspiration. The initial inspiration from a teacher is not the same as a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher. That comes much later, when one is well-established on the path and is quite committed and has examined the teacher very well. The texts say that what signifies the formal relationship with a spiritual teacher is taking vows from him or her, whether pratimoksha, bodhisattva or tantra vows. To reach that point requires quite a lot of prior development so that we are not just taking vows because we are pressured by the group, or for some neurotic reason, and so that we are not just going through a ceremony with no idea of what is going on. When we can really put our hearts into making such a commitment, we start talking about the relationship with a spiritual teacher that is discussed in the traditional texts. It is often said that the spiritual teacher is important in the beginning, middle and end of the path. But, we need to understand what that means at each stage. It does not mean that we see the guru as a Buddha at the beginning of the path.

Appreciating Our Precious Human Life

We do not have time here to go into the various points of lam-rim in detail. Instead, let’s go through merely the structure of the graded stages, and let’s do that merely in terms of comparing two different ways of approaching those stages: the Dharma-Lite way, which is the way that most of us approach them, and the Real Thing.

We start with appreciating the precious human life that we have. The Tibetan word “precious,” here, is the same word as is used in the Three Precious Gems. The connotation is that a fully endowed human life is not only precious, it is also rare. If we think about our situations, it is incredible. It could be so much worse than it is now. It is so extraordinary that we are not mentally retarded, deformed, deficient, insane, etc. We are not in some terrible war zone, or starving to death, tortured in a concentration camp, and so on. A lot of people have been and are in such situations. It is extraordinary that we are free from that, but we take it for granted.

The present world situation is actually very beneficial for gaining this realization of our precious human life. Methods to work on ourselves are available and we actually are interested in learning them and putting them into practice. Even if these methods are available, however, most people are not interested. And there are many people who do not even have them available. Also, it is incredible that, in addition to our interest, we have the opportunity to study and practice these methods. Comparing our situation with other parts of the world, we can see how things could get much worse.

When we know we have a precious opportunity to work on ourselves, it motivates us to take advantage of it. It is so important not to waste such an opportunity. It is very fragile and very rare. To just waste the opportunity by spending most of our time going to bars, watching TV, or whatever, is an unbelievable waste. We are so privileged to have the freedom to do more productive, beneficial things with our lives. Most of us have some money. We are not slaves. We have health. We are privileged. Whether we are doing Dharma-Lite or the Real Thing, this point is exactly the same.

This is a starting point. It comes before the actual graded levels of motivation. Although we can go and study the rest of the path, if this first point does not really reach our hearts and become absolutely real to us on a deep emotional level and not just intellectually, it is very difficult to make any real progress. If this is not heartfelt and sincere, the whole spiritual path easily becomes merely like a sport. It is just an activity like bowling or exercise. We don’t see the deep relevance that it has with our lives. But, in fact, working on ourselves needs to be our life!

This does not mean that we stop at this point and do not study anything else on the graded path until appreciation of our precious human life really sinks in. It will take years before we get it deep in our hearts. The point is to not trivialize it. Although we really have to work at appreciating and taking proper advantage of our precious life, we do not have to become a Dharma fanatic. That is doomed to failure. Of course, we need to relax.

We have this rare opportunity; we have this precious human life. If we have had the opportunity to study with and to meet qualified teachers, this point becomes even more real. How can we just waste that? It is such a privilege to be able to learn and to meet such teachers.

Aiming for Better Rebirths

The initial level of motivation is to think in terms of avoiding worse rebirth situations and trying to get better situations in our future lives. This is in terms of there being many other life forms other than human in which we can be reborn. But, going to one of the heavenly god realms and avoiding one of the hellish realms are not the ultimate goals. Having them as our ultimate goals is not Buddhism.

Realistically speaking, how far are we going to get in one lifetime? We are not going to achieve everything in one lifetime. It will take a long time even to make significant progress on the Buddhist path, so we need to continue to have precious human lives. We need to continue to have as stepping-stones opportunities conducive for achieving the higher Buddhist goals. Therefore, wanting to improve future lives is based on the precious human life; we have a precious human life and we want to continue to have them in the future.

A Dharma-Lite version, if we do not really understand or believe in rebirth, let alone the existence of invisible realms of being such as heavens and hells, could be that we want to benefit future generations. Just as we have had a precious human life, we would like future generations to have precious opportunities, whether we are thinking just of our families or in wider terms. This idea of benefiting future generations is not actually found in the Buddhist texts but it is harmonious with the Dharma teachings, so I think we can approach it from that point of view as Westerners. I think that having such a goal is perfectly valid and perfectly helpful, so long as we don’t claim it is what Buddhism says and deny what Buddhism is really talking about, which is benefiting future lives.

Next, we work with the awareness of death. We take death seriously. For sure, we are going to die. Everybody who has been born has died and we have no idea when that will be. Just thinking about death, without there being anything further, could be depressing. The point in Real Thing Dharma is that there will be future lives after this, so are we prepared? If we were to die right now, would we feel we had really prepared for what is coming next? Do we have regrets about what we have done with our life? Have we wasted it? If this were our last hour, would we be happy with how we have spent our lives? These are important things to think about.

A Dharma-Lite version is to simply take seriously the fact that we could die at any time. In the present world situation, this becomes even more real to us. What legacy are we going to leave behind for future generations? What have we done? Are we just leaving a financial and emotional mess behind, or are we leaving something positive? How are people going to remember us?

After thinking about death, we think about what could happen after death. We think about worse rebirths. Do we want to be reborn as a cockroach so that everybody who sees us just wants to step on us? We can go quite far imagining worse situations. It does not have to be in the animal realms, it can be human realms as well: being the object of terrible prejudice, having no opportunities, and so on. When we realize that we have such precious opportunities and such wonderful fortune now, and we imagine not having such opportunities in our future lives, we feel that would be horrible! We don’t want that to happen. If we really think in this way, we will work very strongly toward preparing for our future lives. We will want to set things up nicely.

This idea is very difficult for most Westerners because we have no idea what rebirth actually means. If we have any idea, it is most likely a simplistic idea that Buddhists certainly don’t assert. The whole thing is very difficult to feel on a sincere level, very difficult. A Dharma-Lite version, as I mentioned, is thinking in terms of future generations, but we could also think in terms of wanting to avoid things getting worse later on in this lifetime. Do we want to end up sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing home having done nothing of meaning in our life, completely depressed, lonely, and with no ability to deal with the sufferings of old age? That would be horrible if we think about it. We want to prepare some sort of emotional basis and understanding so that we will be able to deal with the inevitable (unless we suddenly die tomorrow): sickness, losing our memory, losing our physical senses, losing our ability to control our bowels, being dependent on others, death. How will we deal with those things and keep our dignity instead of falling into a depression, which is what most people do. We need to take this quite seriously and not just deny it. Denying it doesn’t help. That is a significant point. Dharma is not just looking at the nice things. We are looking at the terrible things and trying to do something to either avoid them or to deal with them in a way that will minimize suffering.

The next step is safe direction or refuge. Whether we want to avoid worse rebirths or worse things at the end of this life or in future generations, we see that the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha show the way out. The Buddhas have completely gotten rid of all disturbing emotions and difficulties, and the liberated arhats and highly realized aryas have done so in part. We are working toward this goal, which is actually liberation or enlightenment. If we are working to get a better future life, refuge indicates how to do that, so that over the course of many lifetimes we can actually achieve liberation and enlightenment. It is the direction of working on ourselves, to put it in simple language.

In a Dharma-Lite version, we work on ourselves and go in this direction in this lifetime as a stepping-stone. It is hard to really be convinced that we can get rid of all confusion and realize all potentials. We don’t even know what that means. To really work toward that we need to understand it and be convinced that gaining liberation and enlightenment is possible. So as a Dharma-Lite version, we are going to work on trying to understand how it’s possible to overcome all our confusion and disturbing emotions, and to become convinced that it is possible. In the meantime, we can at least go in that direction. We don’t know whether we can go all the way or not, but we can see that going in this direction is beneficial.

Now we have a meaning and a direction in life. That is why there is such tremendous emphasis on this step of refuge: it really makes a huge difference, whether we are doing a Dharma-Lite version or a Real Thing version. To really feel that we know what we are doing with our life is quite a step! It gives a tremendous level of security and maturity. We are not talking about the immature attitude of “O Buddha, Buddha, save me!” while we do nothing. That is not Buddhism.

To go in the safe direction of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we need to understand karma (behavioral cause and effect) and we need to modify our behavior accordingly. If we are acting destructively, we need to recognize that and refrain, and we need to act more constructively. The way that we act will affect what we experience. If we act like idiots, people will treat us like idiots. If we are cruel, do we expect that people will be nice to us? If we act cruelly, hurt and cheat others, others will do that back to us. If we are kind to our families, things will go a little more smoothly.

As a Dharma-Lite version, we can think that how we act is going to affect our experience in this life, but it is not so obvious that that is the case. We can be very nice in our families and still have a lot of troubles and difficulties. Or we can be very corrupt and, through corruption, become very rich and never get caught. So, we can say, in general, things will go better in this life if we are nice and worse if we are not nice, but there is no guarantee of that. The Real Thing Dharma entails thinking in terms of past and future lives, because most results do not ripen in this lifetime, and what does ripen in this lifetime mostly does not result from what we have done in this lifetime.

Another Dharma-Lite version of the teachings on karma is to try to help others and try not to hurt them. This is consistent with the Dharma, but how do we know what the effect of our actions will be? We may make a wonderful meal to please someone, and he or she could choke on a bone and die. The only thing that is definite is the effect of our actions on ourselves, in terms of our actual experience. That is what karma is actually talking about.

All of this is in the context of thinking about future lives and wanting to avoid their being deficient, so that with precious human lives in each of them, we can work further and further toward liberation and enlightenment.

The Intermediate Scope

With an intermediate scope of motivation, we are aiming toward liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. If we don’t understand or believe in rebirth, how could we possibly want to gain liberation from it? It is a joke. A Dharma-Lite version is aiming to get liberated from any type of problem in this life, but that is quite vague. In terms of Real Thing Dharma, on the initial level we just thought of avoiding the gross levels of suffering, especially the sufferings of the worse rebirth states. Here on the intermediate level, we think of the problems of our ordinary happiness, characterized as the sufferings of the higher realms. Even in the god realms or as humans, we have all sorts of suffering. We also look at the “all-encompassing suffering,” which is the general samsaric situation, namely that whatever we experience in any rebirth is conditioned by confusion, is accompanied by confusion, and perpetuates and creates more confusion. But, with Dharma-Lite, we can look at these two types of suffering more generally, so that they pertain to this lifetime as well.

The ordinary types of happiness that we have are deficient. Why? Because they never satisfy. We never have enough. We don’t just want to have sex one time. We don’t want to eat just one time. We want them again and again and again. What is really horrible is that sometimes we don’t even like our favorite things. There is no guarantee that we will like eating the same meal every time or that we will enjoy having sex every time. What is even more terrible is that we have no idea what will come next. One moment we are in a wonderful mood and in the next moment, we are in a horrible mood. It is very unsatisfying.

We really need to go beyond the state of mind that thinks to try to get whatever pleasure we can, by any means. Usually, what is behind that is the myth, the fantasy, that we are going to find some perfect happiness in food, sex, friendship, money, or whatever. But such a belief comes from confusion, accompanies our pursuit of these things, and, when experiencing that these things don’t satisfy us, perpetuates more confusion. We think that maybe the next time we have them, it will bring perfect happiness. We need to get to the point where we have what we call “renunciation.” It is not only the determination to be free from this self-perpetuating circle; it is based on boredom and disgust with all of it. It is just stupid and boring to knock our heads against the wall and to try to get some everlasting happiness from these sorts of things. With renunciation, we are determined to be free and this is based on the understanding that there is a possibility of being free; there is an alternative.

With renunciation, we realize that there is no place in the universe that we really want to go. It is all pretty much the same. Some places are nicer than others, but it is all garbage. There is no Dharma center that we feel we must belong to in order to gain happiness. We realize that no center will be perfect and that, inevitably, any center will be involved with internal political garbage. There is no monastery that we want to belong to. Any monastery will inevitably be involved with internal political garbage too. There is no particular friendship that we want to cultivate, because any friendship will inevitably be filled with problems and difficulties.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we just go off and kill ourselves, because everything is so depressing. Rather, because we are not attracted to anything and there is no myth that we will find the ideal Dharma center, monastery, friends, place to live, job, partner, etc., then we just look for those that will be most conducive for being able to make further progress on the path to liberation. With this criterion, we choose a Dharma center, monastery, place to stay, etc. without aggrandizing it as the most wonderful in the world. None of them are. It is samsara. Samsaric situations never satisfy, never are perfect; they always go up and down. We need to understand renunciation in this way.

The Dharma-Lite version of renunciation is the wish to get out of suffering in this life. The Real Thing version is thinking of future lives as well, not just this life. The three types of suffering just go on and on and on in one future life after another, unless we do something to get out of the uncontrollably recurring cycle.

We can see, here, how all the teachings are like pieces of a puzzle to be put together with every other piece in many different ways. For example, if we don’t put together the precious human life piece of the puzzle with renunciation, we arrive at a point at which we feel that no place is good, we don’t want to go anywhere, it’s all garbage, and we don’t feel like doing anything. That is not the point of renunciation. Renunciation helps us to take better advantage of our precious human life.

The next thing we need to look into when we have an intermediate scope of motivation is what causes all these problems, difficulties, and disturbing emotions. They are all coming from confusion. The Dharma gives an unbelievably sophisticated explanation of how all this works. As a simple example, the myth of Prince or Princess Charming on the white horse makes us project all sorts of idealizations on other people. Then we become attached, and become angry when he or she doesn’t live up to our impossible expectations, or we become jealous because someone else is going to get our Prince or Princess. Buddhism provides a complete analysis of where this is coming from. It is fantastic.

The Dharma-Lite version is looking at the causes of these syndromes just within the context of this lifetime, and perhaps extends into looking for causes from influences coming from past generations. Thus, the Dharma-Lite version tends to be a psychological analysis, which is not deep enough. The Real Thing version is looking at these syndromes and their causes in terms of patterns from past lifetimes. Considering this just in terms of what has happened to us in this lifetime is not sufficient to really explain everything in full. It is just partial.

The next topic in the lam-rim is the discussion of the twelve links of dependent arising. It is a very sophisticated, complex analysis of how rebirth works; how the disturbing emotions together with karma activate certain patterns that then recur as propensities, as personality traits in different lifetimes, and so on. Only with this complete picture do we really get the idea of how disgusting and absurd the whole samsaric rebirth process is. Although we can get some idea of how our patterns recur in this lifetime from a Dharma-Lite point of view, the Real Thing is talking about how rebirth works. That is the real profundity here.

To get out of this horrible cycle, we need the three higher trainings: in ethical self-discipline, concentration, and discriminating awareness (wisdom). Here, ethical self-discipline is referring to taking vows for individual liberation (lay or monastic). Since we really want to get out of samsara, we commit ourselves to avoiding certain things that hamper our liberation. We don’t need to go into a long discussion here about taking vows. Taking these vows for individual liberation implies that beforehand we need to have some idea that liberation is possible and that an absolute commitment to avoid destructive behavior will help us to go in that direction. It is very much based on renunciation, giving up destructive behavior, because we see that acting, speaking, and thinking destructively is taking us away from this direction.

The fact that the discussion of taking vows follows the discussion of the disturbing emotions and attitudes implies that we are not taking vows for neurotic reasons, such as, “I want to be a good person,” “I want to please my teacher,” etc. When we take vows because we know that liberation is possible and that the vows delineate the boundaries that we need to avoid transgressing in order to reach that goal, we no longer have any indecisive wavering about how to act. For example, we do not drink alcohol because we understand that it clouds our minds so that we cannot achieve concentration. We need to set boundaries. It has nothing to do with being obedient. Taking vows is based on a strong discriminating awareness that following the guidelines of the vows are beneficial. Then, on the basis of this ethical self-discipline, we develop concentration and, with discriminating awareness, focus on voidness, the deepest view of reality, to get rid of the confusion that causes our uncontrollably recurring rebirths. Concentration and voidness are not discussed in detail in the intermediate scope: they are just mentioned.

The Advanced Scope

The advanced scope of motivation is to work toward enlightenment. Once we have gotten to the point where we are working to gain liberation, to get rid of our own uncontrollable rebirth, we need to advance to the point where we want to go further in our development so that we will be able to help everybody else out as well. In the Dharma-Lite version of this motivation, we merely want to be nice to everybody and help everybody. We are not talking just about that. We want to help them overcome uncontrollably recurring rebirth. It is much more than just being nice.

Our concentration and understanding of voidness need tremendous energy behind them in order for them to bring us enlightenment, and that comes from bodhichitta. Put simply, bodhichitta is the state of mind that thinks: “I’ve got to help everyone as fully as is possible, and in order to do that, I must reach enlightenment, and so I shall aim for that attainment.”

Now our minds are limited; our bodies are limited. It is like we are in a submarine looking through a periscope. All we can see is what is right in front of our eyes. We cannot see the interconnectedness of absolutely everything that has existed or will exist. When we look at others, we don’t see how their present states of mind have been affected by every human being and every animal that has ever lived, by history, economics, society, and so on. We need to know all of that in order to choose the correct teaching suited to them. We also don’t know the effect that our teaching something will have on all who listen to it and, having been influenced by that teaching, the effect that this will have on absolutely everybody they ever subsequently meet. Think about that. We just see through the periscope. We don’t see the interconnection, not to mention the past and future lives of everybody. Unless we are aware of all these things, how can we know the best thing to teach anyone?

The Dharma-Lite version of this thinks in terms of everyone having one life, and so it thinks only of the causes and effects within one lifetime. The Real Thing version takes into account that everybody has infinite lives, so it becomes much more complex. In order to be able to know how to help everybody as much as possible, we have to get rid of this stupid periscope, which means we have to become enlightened. Even when we are liberated from samsara, we are still looking through a periscope, though at that point we are no longer fooled, we don’t believe that things exist in the way that they appear to exist. When we are rid of the periscope, we are no longer sentient-being submarines. Without understanding at least a simplistic idea of what enlightenment actually means and why we have to achieve enlightenment, how could we possibly develop bodhichitta? That is what we work on.

A Dharma-Lite version might be, “Oh, I want to become a Buddha because it is so wonderful! It is the highest and I’ll be able to help everybody!” That is a fairy tale. Maybe we can start with that, but we have to realize that there is something much more profound going on.

Then we take the bodhisattva vows. These indicate the actions and attitudes that we need to avoid and the things we need to do in order to be of best benefit to others and in order to reach enlightenment. It is wonderful. We know what is going to hamper us on this path, so we avoid them.

As we go on this path, we work with the six far-reaching attitudes, usually called the six perfections. We can think of them in two ways: in terms of benefiting ourselves to be able to benefit others and in terms of actually benefiting others. We have to be willing to give everything. That is generosity. Without this attitude, how are we going to be able to go on this path? Then we need discipline, otherwise how do we use all our energy and time? Discipline keeps us focused on meditating, practicing, and so on, and we hold on to them. It is going to be difficult. We need patience so that we don’t get frustrated and angry in trying to practice the path. Then we need joyful perseverance because, of course, as we practice and work on ourselves, things will go up and down. We need to not be thrown off course by that. No matter what happens, we will continue and take joy in the Dharma practices that we are doing, because we see so much benefit from them.

What do we apply our perseverance to? First, we work on concentration. Actually, the term here refers not just to concentration, but to mental stability in general. With mental stability, not only do our minds not wander or get dull, they don’t go up and down with emotional junk. Our minds and mental states are stable. Then, when we are in an emotionally difficult situation, we don’t lose our concentration. In the current world situation with all the tension and anxiety, we are able to acknowledge that things are sad or difficult, but we don’t lose our concentration. We are not just using this concentration to focus on the breath, but to focus on the discriminating awareness of reality, to get rid of all the projections of impossible ways of existing, all our fantasies, and to stay focused on what is actually the case.

In terms of actually helping others, with generosity we give others not just material things, but respect and opportunities to learn. We help by teaching others. We give them the freedom not to be afraid of us – not to be afraid that we might ignore them, abandon them, reject them, cling to them, and so on. We give them our sincere love. We really want them to be happy. We are not just using them for our own pleasure. We use discipline to actually help them and not hurt them, as much as we can. We do whatever we can. We try to help, instead of saying, “Sorry, I’m busy. I can’t help you today.” We need to be patient because it is going to be difficult. People will give us a hard time. We need the patience not to get angry or frustrated because we are not God and cannot snap our fingers and make everyone’s problems go away. We need joyful perseverance to keep going, to keep helping, to keep trying, regardless of whether people improve and regardless of the ups and downs.

We need concentration to stay focused on helping people, without distraction, regardless of feeling attracted to this one or repelled from that one. Then we need the discriminating awareness to discriminate between our projections and fantasies about people and how they actually exist. We need to discriminate between what is helpful and what is harmful.

With Dharma-Lite, we are practicing just to help people in this lifetime. Real Thing Dharma is helping others and dedicating the positive force from it to overcome our periscope vision so that we can really help them as fully as possible with love, compassion, and so on.


That is a general discussion of the basic structure of the graded stages of the path. It requires a tremendous amount of work. There is no need to feel ashamed or bad if we are on a Dharma-Lite level, because that is, in fact, where most of us are. Try to put your heart into Dharma-Lite, if that is where you are, and do it sincerely, but always with the vision that it is a stepping-stone. We need to understand and acknowledge the importance of working with rebirth and so on, so that eventually we can really work for liberation and enlightenment. We must not trivialize these teachings, be pretentious or pretend that we are on a more advanced level of motivation than we are. Whatever stage we are on, we always try to be of best help to everyone.


As I have said many times, if we have some understanding, some positive force from discussing these things and we just leave it as it is, that positive force will automatically act as a cause for merely improving samsara. That is very nice, but we can do much more with that force. We do not just want it to make our lives a little easier. That would be Dharma-Lite. What we want is to consciously dedicate it as a cause for achieving enlightenment, for overcoming not only our disturbing emotions, but also our periscope vision, so that we can truly be of greatest help to everyone. Thank you.