Overcoming Obstacles with the Initial Scope Lam-rim Teachings


Tomorrow is the Buddhist holiday known as Lhabab Duchen in Tibetan, or the Descent from the Heaven of the Thirty-three in English. The best way to celebrate this special day is to have a Buddhist teaching on the four noble truths, the first teaching that the Buddha gave after becoming enlightened. But, in particular, I want to talk more about what His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always talking about with great care, love and compassion – the path we need to follow, with a bodhichitta motivation, to improve not only our own situations but also the present situation of the entire world. I’d like to discuss this in terms of the three graded scopes of lam-rim and how the methods they provide help us to overcome the obstacles preventing us from improving both.

As His Holiness says, the mind of bodhichitta is very important. Even if we don’t have bodhichitta in a strong, manifest manner inside of us, remember that at least we all have the potential for it inside us. So, when we wake up each morning, we should immediately try to remember bodhichitta. Compassion, especially as discussed in the Madhyamaka texts, is essential at the beginning of the path, the middle of the path and at the end of the path. Every morning, bring to mind that sense of the importance of compassion. This helps to set up the day ahead.

Explanation of Lhabab Duchen and Thoughts to Develop on This Special Day

I’m not going to go into great detail about the history of this holiday, but essentially, it celebrates the occasion when the Buddha returned to earth after having gone up to this heavenly abode of the thirty-three gods. He’d gone there to give some teachings to his mother, who had been reborn there, and the special beings residing in that place. But the people on earth really missed the Buddha, and so Maudgalyayana, who was one of the Buddha’s main disciples, was sent as a representative to request the Buddha to return to earth and continue teaching the Dharma. So, in some ways, this special festival encourages us to think about how much we would miss the Buddha and his teachings if they were no longer available.

Another way to think about Lhabab Duchen is to question why the Buddha ascended to this Heaven of the Thirty-three in the first place. It wasn’t because he was stressed out and needed a holiday! The story behind this festival is that the Buddha recollects the kindness of his mother and then displays the activities contained within the first three points of the seven-point cause and effect method for developing bodhichitta. These three points are: 

  • Distinguishing all beings as having been our mothers
  • Remembering the kindness of our mothers
  • Wishing to repay their kindness. 

The Buddha demonstrated these three points by doing what he did. If the Buddha acted like this, we too should act in whatever ways we can to show the appreciation and gratitude we have toward our gurus and parents for their kindness. Although there is no “Teachers’ Day” in the Buddhist tradition, this festival could be considered a mixture between Buddha’s Day, Teachers’ Day and Mothers’ Day. 

So, the Buddha ascended to the Heaven of the Thirty-three, and, through a combination of the sutra teachings of the four noble truths and the tantra teachings of the White Umbrella Goddess, Sitatapatra, he led his mother to achieve the path of seeing and onwards to become liberated from samsaric rebirth and all its sufferings. For the Buddha, there was no greater way to repay his mother’s kindness than to do something like this. You can see the advice the Buddha is giving us. 

The Initial Scope: Avoiding Rebirth in the Lower Realms and Attaining Rebirth in the Higher Realms

In relation to these two days that I have the chance to speak with you, I want to focus on the three graded scopes of lam-rim and what it is that actually prevents us from reaching each of those stages. Even if many of us here have quite a lot of experience in the Dharma, if we are really honest with ourselves, can we say that we have reached the highest scope? How about the middle scope? Or even the smaller, initial scope? Each one of the scopes is hard to develop. So, I want to look at what prevents us from being able to cultivate the practices associated with persons having these three scopes. 

The initial scope is the so-called “small scope.” But don’t be fooled by this name! Don’t look at the smaller scope and think that it’s not so important, that we can just leave it aside and keep moving. As the initial stage, it is very important; it is the foundation upon which the other stages are built. 

Let’s think about the special qualities we need to develop in relation to the smaller scope. For instance, when we talk about the greater, advanced scope, we say that primarily it is about developing bodhichitta. In terms of practitioners of the middle scope, they develop renunciation. What about the smaller scope, then? Is it just about being scared of the sufferings of lower realms? No, it’s not like that.

Overcoming Fascination with the Appearances of This Life

Of course, in order to work through the stages of the path all the way up to full enlightenment, we need the renunciation and bodhichitta from the two higher scopes. But we also really need a good foundation of the practices associated with the smaller scope. Of particular importance is overcoming our fascination with the appearances of this life. This is one of the things we must get rid of. If we can’t do this, we will never really get to the stage where we can think about preparing for future lives. So, we have to find a way to deal with our fascination with the appearances of this life and our attachment to them. 

What we need, then, is some kind of method with which we can deal with this issue. The great Kadampa Lamas always say that one of the essential focus points of meditation and contemplation is impermanence. When we begin to understand cause and effect and impermanence, we see that our practice is not only for the sake of this life. Beyond that, we need to find a way to disengage ourselves from our attachment to the wonders of samsara in any future life we might take and in general. Still, in this particular scope, we need to overcome our attachments to the appearances of this life. There are people who practice for a long time, people who practice and study from a young age, and those who go to the mountains and engage in serious practice, but honestly, if we haven’t made letting go of the appearances of this life our main practice, then all the other practices will be very difficult to develop. 

Impermanence and Death

The understanding of impermanence falls under the umbrella of the initial scope, but still, when we look at the guidelines for contemplating impermanence, there are quite many stages. The first step is to understand that death is guaranteed to come to us all, and the second one is that the time of death is uncertain. Je Tsongkhapa says that out of these two, the second one is more important. 

But are these two points alone a complete Dharma practice? I don’t think so. In fact, I have many friends, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, who understand these points and then feel that, because of them, we had better enjoy ourselves as best as we can now. So, we need something more than just these two points. That’s why the third aspect of our meditation on death and impermanence is essential. This third aspect is to remind ourselves that, at the time of death, only our Dharma practice will help us. 

This is a really important point. At death, our friends and family and possessions can’t help us. Only our Dharma practice will be of benefit. When we are talking about the smaller scope and giving up clinging and attachment to this life, it can be difficult to imagine how if we do this, we might carry on with our daily activities, our work, our relations with people, and so on. Of course, it is very difficult to immediately get rid of this clinging attachment to what we feel are the wonders of this life, and it won’t really happen until we get to the middle scope. But it is still possible to reduce it, to lessen our attachment to the appearances of this life. This falls under the smaller scope. 

The Sufferings of the Lower States of Rebirth

In Je Tsongkhapa’s Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, in the section related to the smaller scope, he talks a tremendous amount about the sufferings of the lower realms. It is not always easy to accept what is said there. He also talks about using meditation on death and impermanence as a way to reduce our attachment to this life. He provides us with methods to avoid rebirth in the lower realms and to achieve some form of higher rebirth. 

In the description of the sufferings of the lower realms, he mentions hell beings, hungry or clutching ghosts, and animals. People say that these are things we can’t see, apart from the animals. But my teacher would often say that while of course it is difficult to directly see these actual realms themselves, there are certain elements of the suffering there that we can see even in human experience. For instance, it’s possible that someone becomes very sick and can only take a drop of water at a time and is continually parched. These kinds of feelings are associated with the lower realms and, although these experiences in the human realm are not exactly the same, they could be a similitude of these experiences in the lower realms. 

There are karmic potentials from very specific karmic causes that, when activated, throw us to a rebirth in these unfortunate realms. And when they do, as a clutching ghost or a hell-being, we have to spend thousands upon thousands of years trapped in a terrible situation. When I talk about the similar experiences that we can look at in our human experience, I’m not talking about the full-blown karmic causes that throw us into those realms, but more like the feelings or sensations involved with being stuck in those kinds of places. That is still something we can appreciate, if we really think about it. But if we actually come to believe that the sufferings of these lower realms really do exist, we become horrified imagining being born as a chicken or a fish or an insect. Just see how they kill and devour one another and how they get exploited by us humans. They don’t have any form of human rights. They have no rights, not even hell-being rights! 

The Laws of Karmic Cause and Effect

Could this happen to us in the future? This is the question. Would it be so hard to believe? What this discussion highlights for us is the necessity to understand the laws of karmic cause and effect and the topic of past and future lives. Dharmakirti’s Commentary on Valid Cognition, Pramanavarttika, provides the reasoning for how this life’s consciousness arose in a previous life, and a previous life before that, and on and on over beginningless time. Some of you may be a little new to all of this and might find it difficult to accept. But if you look in the second chapter of Pramanavarttika, you will see the logical reasonings for the existence of past and future lives. If this is new material for you, please pay attention to that. If you have been studying for many years, you probably already have strong, confident belief in the actual existence of these things. 

What do we need to think about in relation to the sufferings of the lower realms? It’s best to think about the causes for having a rebirth there – what we are not doing. We are not refraining from destructive ways of acting, speaking and thinking. And most importantly, we need to think about what we need to do to stop the possibility of experiencing their sufferings through the laws of karmic cause and effect. 

Contemplating the methods for overcoming being under the control of karmic cause and effect is usually more associated with the middle scope, where we think of overcoming rebirth in any of the six realms of samsaric existence. But we also need to bring this point down to our Dharma practice in the smaller scope, where we are looking at the laws of karmic cause and effect, to see how to avoid being born in the lower realms. Basically, we have to stop committing the destructive actions that cause us to be born in the lower realms. In the second chapter of Entering the Middle Way, Chandrakirti says that to ensure a rebirth in one of the higher states, there is nothing more supreme than the practice of ethical self-discipline – the self-discipline to refrain from destructive behavior.

The Initial Scope: Three Factors to Contemplate

There are three factors we need to contemplate in relation to the smaller scope. 

  • The first factor is to contemplate on the sufferings of the lower realms. If we can’t yet accept the idea of hell realms or the clutching ghost realm, we can just think for now of the terrible sufferings of the animal realm. 
  • The second factor to contemplate is the cause of all the sufferings in the lower realms. This basically regards how we are totally unaware of karmic cause and effect, and so we think, speak and act in destructive ways because we are unaware of the long-term results of such behavior that we ourselves will experience in the future.
  • The third factor to contemplate is the awareness we need to develop to counter all of this. In this case, we need to develop the discriminating awareness of karmic cause and effect and then practice ethical self-discipline.

The combination of these three are what we need to focus on in the initial, smaller scope.

Many of you may have studied for a long time, and so you probably have some form of trusting faith in throwing karma – the karmic impulse that “throws” us into future lives. Let’s think about an example with lying – telling a serious lie. For our action of lying to result in our experiencing the fullest consequences, there are many conditions that need to be there. Only then will our lying qualify as being fully complete. This is the case with all karmic actions, whether destructive or constructive. So, with lying there are certain qualifications it has to fulfill for it to be the “full package of lying.” But even if some of the conditions are not completely fulfilled, it doesn’t mean that our lying will not have some negative results.

The ripening result of that “full package of lying” is going to be rebirth in the lower realms. But for us, we think, “OK, that is just for the big lies. I occasionally tell a few white lies.” We probably do not think that we will really go to the lower realms for that. We have more doubts about it. We think, “Probably not.” We most likely feel that these things will not fling us to the lower realms. 

But what do we know? In terms of understanding the extremely subtle connections between karmic actions and their results, it is only the Buddha who fully understands these subtle karmic causes and effects. If we really feel that the “white lies” are absolutely fine, then it’s a sign that we don’t actually have confident faith and trust in the laws of karmic cause and effect, or in the negative consequences such actions can produce, such as being born in the lower realms. We feel it will all probably be alright to tell white lies. But to gain a strong, confident belief in the subtle karmic causal connections, we can’t just sit there and say, “I believe,” and just force it. It doesn’t work like that. 

Gaining Trust in the Buddha’s Teachings

To develop correct understanding and confident trust in Buddha’s most subtle teachings, like the subtle workings of karmic cause and effect, it’s useful again to look at Dharmakirti’s Pramanavarttika, where he offers us some very useful suggestions. Let’s say that we are discussing the qualities of the Buddha. Imagine that someone said to us that, with his heightened, extrasensory vision, the Buddha can see huge distances or that, when the Buddha looks into the ocean, he can see all of the beings living there, and so we should have faith in him. Well, we might think, “Why should I believe in any of that?” And Dharmakirti actually says that this is not a good way for creating trusting faith in the Buddha and what he teaches. 

He says that the best way is to say that the Buddha is someone who laid out, in detail, the stages of the path and explained that anyone can follow them to attain liberation and the fully omniscient state of complete Buddhahood. He said this based on his own personal experience of having successfully travelled these paths himself but warned people not to just accept this on blind faith in him, but to test it out like when buying gold. When we examine and analyze, with logic and reason, the methods outlined with these stages and put the initial stages into practice and experience for ourselves that they validly bring about their stated goals, we can infer that the rest of the stages are also valid. 

If the Buddha, endowed with great compassion for all beings, omniscience, and the powerful abilities to help everyone, was able to reach his attainments because of his great compassion for us, then why would he try to confuse us or lie to us? Everything the Buddha taught is to bring us closer to liberation from suffering and confusion, so there is no way that the Buddha was trying to deceive us. Therefore, we can implicitly believe, with confident faith, that what the Buddha said about the subtle connections between karmic causes and effects – even if they are beyond our current understanding – must also be true. Why would the Buddha lie about that? 

This is the way that Dharmakirti says he developed trusting faith in the Buddha. Dharmakirti was a great master at Nalanda, and without the Nalanda tradition, the teachings probably would not have survived until today. That is why His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that we should have tremendous gratitude for the Nalanda tradition, for being able to preserve this incredible way of engaging with the Buddhist teachings. 

Confident Faith and Blind Faith

I’ve been using the term “faith” here, and I know for some Westerners, this can be a tricky subject. So let me talk about the difference between trusting or stable faith and blind faith. When we have this trust, using the analysis above, that the Buddha is not tricking us in any way, we have stable, confident faith. Blind faith arises more when we almost instantaneously develop faith in something without really checking it too much. This kind of faith is very shaky. Mistaken ideas can arise very easily. Feelings can arise in us, and we almost immediately follow them without checking them out. 

It’s one of our responsibilities to be aware of whether the things we are thinking are actually valid or not. Looking at things like karmic cause and effect, what we should be doing is checking things like the path to liberation, full enlightenment, and thoroughly checking them. Also, we can study and look at the reasonings that support the idea of karmic cause and effect. There is a logical way to check things very carefully, as opposed to the sudden burst of inspiration we often get. We should do this so that we have a more stable engagement with the path. 

Let me give an example. Let’s say we get headaches and need to find medicine. Actually, not all medicine works the same way for everyone. So, we might go through a reasonable process of trying different brands of painkillers, testing them out to see if they work. When we find a brand that works well for us, we will always buy that brand. And it doesn’t just stop at headaches. We start to trust that company, so that if we have another sickness, like a stomachache or nausea, we also buy their medicines for those ailments.

We automatically develop “faith” in that company’s products because they work and help us. Similarly, when we develop faith in the Buddha’s teachings, that he showed the right path to liberation and how to overcome our problems and the cause of all problems – our ignorant minds – then we automatically have faith and confidence in Buddha’s other teachings, which might not be so easy to understand. When we see, even quite early on in the path, how the methods he taught are working and how they have helped us to overcome some of the problems we face in life, then later on, when we get to talking about these subtle karmic results, we automatically have faith and confidence in the Buddha. 

Debate about the Place of Faith on the Hindu and Buddhist Paths

There are some who argue that the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism is that the path of Buddhism is based on logic and reason, whereas the Hindu path of Shiva is based on faith. The Buddhist path has clearly defined logical stages and has an end, which is reached after many lifetimes. The Hindu path of Shiva does not have such stages and has no end. It is based purely on faith. 

They use the analogy of falling from a high cliff into a pit. So, some modern-day Hindu teachers say that in Buddhism, it is like falling into a pit that has a bottom. When you hit the bottom, you get smashed like a watermelon and so, if you think about the end, you will become very frightened. The Hindu path of Shiva, on the other hand, has no end and is like falling into a bottomless pit. Falling forever, for them, is the path and it has no fear. 

They also say that Shiva taught 114 paths and that the path of awareness based on logic and reason that Buddha taught is merely one of them. In that sense, as well, Buddhism is limited. Based on that, they say that being based on logic and reason is a pitfall and I like to debate with them about that point. Aside from the misconception that the endpoint of Buddhism is complete annihilation and so it’s something to be feared, I would argue that rather than the Buddhist path of reason being just a part of the path of faith, the Buddhist path includes faith, but faith based on reason, not blind faith.

The Importance of Stable Faith Based on Logic and Reasoning

What happens to us with blind faith is that we get immediately excited when we receive any teachings, whether on sutra or tantra, and we immediately want to go deeply into them. And often, we mix it up with our own desires and wishes, and quickly we say, “Oh, this is my guru!” Then, after some months, maybe the guru acts in an unusual way that we are not expecting. We start to notice his faults and we get frustrated and walk away. If we had based our engagement in the Dharma by looking at it as a path to liberation – rather than just getting excited and quickly following a guru – this would lead to a much more stable faith, like that mentioned by Dharmakirti. 

The faith we have in the Buddha, and the subsequent faith we have in his teachings on karmic cause and effect, are based on a process starting with understanding in an unmistaken way the four noble truths. When we see the validity of the four noble truths and the path of liberation outlined in them, we understand that the teacher, the Buddha, is also non-mistaken and valid. So, when we say that understanding the subtleties of all the details of karmic cause and effect is something only a Buddha can understand, we develop faith that what Buddha said about it is correct, but our faith is based on reason and that’s why we have faith and confidence in the Buddha. So, in this sense, the path of logic and reason includes the path of faith, not the other way around.

Concluding Remarks

Here, I’ve tried to briefly cover the lower scope, and next I will talk about the middle and highest scope. As I said earlier, the main thing with Lhabab Duchen is to look at the Buddha’s deeds, and why he went all the way to the Heaven of the Thirty-three. The most important thing to take away is that even if he is the Buddha, he wanted to repay the kindness of his mother, and so he went there to give teachings. He didn’t buy her expensive things. That is the real thanksgiving, not turkey!