Overcoming Obstacles with the Middle and Advanced Scope Lam-rim Teachings

Review of Day One

Yesterday, we covered the smaller scope and looked at one of its primary topics, which is meditating on impermanence. That helps in reducing our attachment to the appearances of this life, because we see that nothing lasts. To recap, there are meditations on the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the time of death, but these two alone are not really enough. We need to add that, at the time of death, only the Dharma can help us. On top of that, during our life, we need to contemplate the laws of karmic cause and effect. We should consider that if we were to be reborn into a lower realm, we would suffer greatly. We need to find an antidote to the unawareness of these laws of karmic cause and effect that makes us compulsively act in destructive ways and, as a result, causes us to be reborn in such a terrible state. Related to that, even though we talk about selflessness in relation to the middle scope, but actually we need to bring the sense of that down to the smaller scope.

What Part of “Me” Actually Goes from Life to Life?

When we talk about impermanence or death, there is a lot of discussion around the continuum of a being, what exactly it is that goes from moment to moment, life to life. From our ordinary perspective, we actually think that the “me” of yesterday is the same “me” as the “me” of today – that the two are identical – but actually we can very clearly state that yesterday’s person is not the person of today. The cells in our bodies have changed; even our minds have changed, we might have learned something new. So, the body and mind of yesterday and today are not the same, but yet they are not two totally different, unrelated persons either. There is still some kind of continuation. So, we have to find out how exactly “me” continues day to day, year to year, and then life to life.

Thinking that yesterday’s “me” is identical with today’s “me” is grasping at permanence. “Permanence,” here, means believing that, although this “me” has continuity – yesterday’s “me” and today’s “me” aren’t two totally different, unrelated people – this “me” doesn’t change from moment to moment. This grasping at a permanent, unchanging “me” that continues from yesterday to today to tomorrow is something from which a whole range of negative emotions stems, like attachment, anger and ignorance. We have to work on reducing these destructive, negative emotions, and the best way to do this is to attack the source of them, this strong belief in a permanent, unchanging, continuing “me.” 

So, we need to ask, who and what is it that continues into the future? In Buddhism, we don’t accept the idea of a soul or a permanent, unchanging atman. But we have to accept that there is a continuity of the relationship between the person of today and the person of tomorrow, and the day after, and on and on. Here, we are getting into contemplating the laws of karmic cause and effect, and past and future lives. Although, at this stage, we are not bringing in the full explanation of selflessness, we are bringing in a basic understanding of a part of what is an impossible way in which the self exists.

The Sufferings of the Higher States of Rebirth

Up to now, we have been discussing the smaller scope, where we wish to avoid rebirth in the lower realms and aim for rebirth in the higher states of samsaric existence. These higher states include our human realm, and the antigod and god realms, including the gods in the form and formless realms. But, if all we focus on is this smaller scope, with a wish to attain rebirth in these places, our wishes for a lasting happiness will never actually be fulfilled. Why? Because avoiding a rebirth in a lower realm and being reborn in the higher realms is not a stable condition; it can never last. Even if a lifetime in a god realm is many, many times the length of a human life, it too will eventually come to an end. 

We can think of the suffering of change in such a higher rebirth even at this very gross level. I’m happy today, but it will change, and I won’t be happy later on. Think of it in this sense. So, even if we attain a higher rebirth with great happiness and have freedom from lower rebirths, it is not stable at all. It is only temporary. At some point, any life in the higher realms comes to an end and we will fall from there to rebirth in the lower realms. We need to become certain about the suffering of change in relation to this. 

All-Pervasive Suffering

Now, we all know about the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change – the suffering of unhappiness and pain and the suffering of samsaric happiness that never lasts, is never satisfying and is never enough. But here, we need to bring in the third type of true suffering, which is all-pervasive suffering. What does this refer to? It refers to taking uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth under the sway of karma and disturbing emotions, which means under the control of the karmic imprints – the positive and negative karmic potentials – from our previous compulsive karmic behavior and the disturbing emotions that activate them. When we are asked to posit an example of all-pervasive suffering, we usually point to the five aggregates, which is correct, but we need to think about it also in terms of each of the aggregates individually. Think of how our consciousness, the way we think, the way we feel, and so on are all under the sway of the power of compelling karmic impulses and disturbing emotions. 

Basically, we have no freedom. This is because their causes are tainted with ignorance, which means that, because of that ignorance, they perpetuate themselves, always creating more. It is possible, under our current circumstances, to experience some temporary, short-term happiness, but a long-term happiness under their control is not possible. Compelling karmic impulses and disturbing emotions drive this process of all-pervasive conditioning – all our rebirths and aggregates are conditioned by them – and because we are under the sway of this, we are ultimately not under our own control. So, what we need to do is cause that process – uncontrollably recurring rebirth driven by karmic impulses and disturbing emotions – to cease forever.

Here, I want to share a story about my predecessor, the first Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche. Once, he visited Paris and his students took him up the Eiffel Tower. Afterwards, he remarked to his translator, Alex Berzin, “Once you get to the top, there’s no place left to go except back down. It’s the same with the highest god realm.” This is the teaching of the middle scope of the suffering of change – no worldly happiness ever lasts – and all-pervasive suffering.

Due to all-pervasive suffering, wherever we are born, we have these five tainted aggregates that perpetuate themselves. Because of that, they are in the nature of suffering and there is no freedom. As we said, under these conditions, some temporary happiness is possible, but we will never, ever find stable happiness so long as we are under their sway. We need to be crystal clear about this fact. 

In Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend, when he discusses the meaning of all-pervasive conditioned suffering, he uses the term “vessel of suffering” in regard to the five aggregates. Dharmakirti’s Commentary on Valid Cognition uses the word “support” for this suffering. There is great meaning in these two terms, “vessel” and “support.” Even if we are born in an amazing god realm where there is no manifest suffering, or even in the human realm and achieve great wealth and status, our aggregates are still a support and vessel for suffering. We have to understand that this suffering is pervasive throughout samsara. 

The Middle Scope: Avoiding Uncontrollably Recurring Rebirth Forever

With the smaller scope, we try to counteract attachment to the appearances of this life. But when we move up to the middle scope, we talk about counteracting attachment to the whole of samsara, so that we have complete disillusionment with samsara itself. In fact, not only are we disillusioned with samsara, but we develop a mind of revulsion for samsara; we are completely bored and fed up with it. 

But disgust with samsara is not enough to count as renunciation. On top of this disgust with samsara, we understand that there is liberation from samsara because there exists the possibility of a full cessation of suffering, and we are totally convinced of that based on logic and reason. Imagine that there is a prisoner who is facing execution the following day. In their mind, there is a great wish to escape their situation. That is the general wish. If we were then to give the prisoner some kind of method of escape, then for sure they would be single-pointedly focused on it, determined to escape being executed. That is what renunciation is. It is not just disgust with our situation in samsara, but rather this wish and determination to get free of it, combined with the knowledge that it is actually possible to escape the situation forever. That is what our minds are focused on with renunciation.

Of course, we come to the question of whether a true cessation of suffering is possible or not. In the god realms and even in the pure lands, there is no manifest suffering but that is still not a true cessation of suffering or liberation. The beings there must eventually return to states with more manifest suffering. So, does the total cessation of suffering exist or not? If it does, is there an effective path that allows us to attain that cessation? His Holiness said we reach the essence of the Buddhist path when we go through all these contemplations on the middle scope. This is where realization of these points about the possibility of true cessations and liberation needs to occur.

We differentiated two aspects of renunciation – disgust with samsara and the definite decision to gain liberation from it, based on the understanding that a total cessation of suffering is possible. Many people in Tibet, India, and the West, get confused. They feel fed up with the suffering of this life or think that life is so boring, and then imagine that this is renunciation. And then they think to become a monk, like Milarepa! But such thoughts can be quite dangerous. In Tibet, someone tried to copy what Milarepa was doing. He went to a cave, stayed a few months, and then all he could do was complain about Milarepa, “Milarepa is to blame because I had to give up everything like he did, but I didn’t get anything in return.” 

We have to understand that we can’t force a genuine feeling of renunciation. When many people, including myself, have this disgusted feeling toward samsara and feel, “Now, I must do serious Dharma,” that feeling is like a bubble in the ocean. It is beautiful but it goes away very fast. It’s not solid or stable. The thing that we really need to consider is whether there is a way to get out of samsara and, if there is, how can this antidote of selflessness liberate us? This is our main task. When we are confident that there is such a thing as liberation and that the realization of selflessness is what will liberate us, then we will be able to see that this confidence is helping us in this life because we will definitely see some positive changes. Such confidence has helped His Holiness, it has helped Lama Tsongkhapa, and it will definitely help us too.

Understanding Voidness (Emptiness) Is the Path to Liberation

We have this path to liberation, and one strong method on this path is meditation on selflessness, how the self is devoid of existing in impossible ways. If we start to cultivate an understanding of the voidness of the self, we can see in this very life how it helps us to reduce our grasping and attachments. But we might wonder how it’s going to affect our future lives, because our rebirths, whether in the higher or lower realms, come from the very subtle workings of karma. Will such meditation reduce these sufferings? Well, if we meditate on impermanence and on the selfless nature of ourselves and all phenomena, we can see for ourselves a reduction in our grasping and attachment to them. 

When His Holiness says that quantum physics has similarities to the Chittamatra Mind-Only School and how its insights into how appearances of the external world depend on the mind of the observer bring benefit in reducing our grasping and attachment – that’s true. But in the Buddhist tradition, the emphasis is slightly different. If we look at Chapter 6 of Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara, Entering the Middle Way, where he deals with the refutation of the self of persons, he is not discussing whether external phenomena exist. His emphasis is on what the very place is out of which all our disturbing emotions and sufferings come. Their source is our self-grasping. 

So, we need to investigate what the object is that our grasping for a self, having inherent, self-established existence, is grasping for and that we believe corresponds to the self that actually exists. We examine that and check whether the self really exists in the way it appears to exist. We will discover that there is a total absence of anything corresponding to that way of appearing. That investigation leads us to understand the selflessness of phenomena, although Chandrakirti, there, is talking about the selflessness of persons. As our understanding of selflessness deepens more and more, it enhances our confident faith in the Buddha and all the masters who talk about the way things exist. 

Usually, when we discuss renunciation, we have quite a one-dimensional way of thinking, which is to look for the root of samsara. We go straight to that. One of my teachers had some uncommon advice on how to engage with renunciation, which is based on Maitreya’s Uttaratantra, the Furthest Everlasting Continuum. It says that there are two aspects to thinking about renunciation. One is to contemplate the root of suffering. The other is to contemplate the root of disturbing emotions. They are slightly different. Taking birth itself is the root of suffering. Because we are born, we suffer. If we hadn’t been born, our suffering in this life would not have arisen. 

You are going to spoil someone’s happy birthday party if you bring that up! Of course, the happy birthday tradition is a worldly convention, so we don’t want to do that and ruin someone’s day. But for a Dharma practitioner, someone who is contemplating renunciation and practicing the middle scope, this is actually how they should think. 

If you ask most of us what is the biggest suffering and what is it that we’re most afraid of, then for sure we say death, or maybe sickness. But who will identify birth as the root of suffering and as what they are most afraid of? It is hard to accept. But if we think about it, it’s true. That’s why we need to think about ways in which we can put a stop to the cause of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. 

There are many paths and explanations that deal with that. Where does rebirth come from? It comes as the result of karmic impulses and the compulsive behavior they lead to. Where do these karmic impulses come from? They are driven by the motivating force of disturbing emotions. Where do these disturbing emotions come from? They come from ignorance or unawareness. Here, we talk about beginningless unawareness, our root ignorance. That is where disturbing emotions come from. When we are looking for the source of suffering, we need to go through this kind of step-by-step process. It’s very logical. 

Dealing with Karma

There are many ways that we can deal with our compulsive karmic behavior and the karmic potentials on our mental continuums that come from that and that ripen into our samsaric rebirths. There is such a huge variety of karmic potentials for all sorts of samsaric rebirths that we have. The non-Buddhist Indian traditions also offer many presentations on how to deal with these aspects of karma. It’s fair to say that the Buddhist tradition has changed a lot over the years, as have the non-Buddhist Indian traditions. But, if we look at Bhavaviveka’s Tarkajvala, Blaze of Reasoning, it presents and refutes the antidotes to karma and disturbing emotions that these non-Buddhist schools promote. They include practices like strict ascetism, jumping into fires, standing on one foot in the hot sun all day long, among others. They also have ablution practices, purification practices, and fasting practices. These are just some of the many methods described as antidotes to karma by the non-Buddhist Indian schools. 

Bhavaviveka goes through each method and criticizes them. He says that jumping into fires will not bring about the cessation of karmic cause and effect; in fact, it only causes more suffering. He uses the example of a moth attracted to a flame. For a moth to fly into a flame, there are only tremendous disadvantages, no advantages at all. Similarly, in terms of strict fasting, it just causes severe hunger and thirst. People’s minds can be very disturbed by these practices, which have no inherent value. Bhavaviveka is refuting and excluding all of these methods as a way to narrow down to what the actual antidote is to our karmic behavior, their subsequent potentials, and the ripening of their results. 

In some non-Buddhist Indian texts, it also says that if you receive an initiation of Shiva, that clears away your karma, but Bhavaviveka refutes that too. After all, he says, it can be clearly seen that even after someone has received that initiation, they are still prone to anger, attachment and disturbing emotions. As the result of acting on them, they are still creating further karmic potentials. 

There is a response from those non-Buddhist schools that says, well, in this life that is true but after you die, then the karmic potentials will be exhausted if you had the initiation during your life. The counterargument offered by the Buddhist schools is how can it do so after death, and if it can, why can’t it have that same effect now? 

We should research these things ourselves. Those are Bhavaviveka’s criticisms of the claims of some non-Buddhist schools, but we can just take a look at ourselves. What happens to us when we take an initiation? Do our compelling karmic impulses, our compulsive behavior, our disturbing emotions, and our self-grasping automatically reduce when we take an initiation? We should examine this carefully. 

The Method That Brings About the Complete Cessation of All Disturbing Emotions

Bhavaviveka is looking at the methods that could possibly bring about the cessation, forever, of disturbing emotions and provide a path to liberation. Is seeing the faults of attachment good enough to help reduce our attachment? And if just seeing the faults of attachment is enough to get rid of it, then is seeing the good qualities of detachment enough to cause us to develop detachment? What Bhavaviveka is saying is that we have to attack the root cause of disturbing emotions, and not just be happy with seeing their faults. Just seeing and understanding their faults is not enough. 

All of our disturbing emotions are underpinned by the mistaken mind that views the self and all phenomena as possessing a solid, self-established identity all on their own. That’s what we need to look at. We need to see how the disturbing emotions all arise from that. In Dharamakirti’s Commentary on Valid Cognition, there is a phrase that says that we cannot put a stop to karma unless we counteract the object of self-grasping – in other words, the object of our grasping for an impossible self. If we can’t counteract that object, we cannot cause karmic impulses, the ripening of the potentials built up from enacting them, and disturbing emotions to cease permanently.

In Bhavaviveka’s works, there are also many refutations to non-Buddhist presentations of liberation. I’m bringing this up because we ourselves tend to think that doing certain practices, like the Buddhist fasting practice of nyung-ney or receiving initiations, in themselves, are paths to liberation. But Buddha never said that when, with the four noble truths, he revealed the true path. 

In addition, regarding that true path to liberation, the Buddha says to us, “I can only show you the true path to liberation, it’s up to you to walk the path.” But none of the practices of the true path to liberation are really effective unless we underpin them all with valid cognition to gain unshakable confidence that they are indeed the true path. 

With valid cognition, we need to correctly identify that 

  • self-grasping is a completely mistaken mind
  • the root of all suffering is self-grasping
  • and there is such a thing as liberation from suffering. 

If we are able to validly ascertain all of this, then we would certainly have some disgust or disillusionment with samsara. This would be conjoined with something we wish to abandon and get rid of – namely, rebirth in any of the possible states of samsara. It would further be conjoined with what we wish to attain – namely, liberation. This is renunciation. 

In the fifth verse of Je Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path, when discussing renunciation, he says, 

When, by accustoming yourself in this way, you never generate, for even an instant, a mind that aspires for the splendors of recurring samsara, and you develop the attitude that, day and night, always is interested keenly in liberation, at that time, you have generated renunciation. 

This combination of disgust with samsara and the strong determination to attain liberation and be free from samsara are very important. As Je Tsongkhapa says, when we have these two then we really have the practice of the middle scope. If you can imagine someone like a beggar who is determined to get out of their situation and has the strong belief that they will win the lottery, you can get a sense of the anticipation and focus you have when you have developed a genuine renunciation.

The Higher Scope: Attaining Full Enlightenment for the Benefit of All Beings

In Je Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path, the three principal aspects are, in order: 

  • Renunciation
  • Bodhichitta
  • Voidness. 

But I think we need to bring voidness down a little and stick it in the middle, somewhere between the practice of the middle and the greater scopes. Why do I think this? Because, before we develop a mind of bodhichitta, we also need to have some sense of the meaning of voidness.

Of the Buddhist philosophical schools and their tenet systems, the highest is Prasangika. The main difference between the tenet systems is the subtlety with which they present the antidote to the root of samsara. There is increasing subtlety as one moves up the more sophisticated tenets. In the Prasangika system, we have meditations on the selflessness of phenomena and persons, which reduce our self-grasping and grasping at phenomena. In terms of how this reduces self-grasping, not only Je Tsongkhapa but also many great Indian masters and scholars have discussed this in relation to a correct and valid realization of voidness. One very important factor that Je Rinpoche especially mentions is that when realizing voidness, that realization has to have a joy, a positive delight that comes from that realization itself. If there is no sense of joy, then since no appearances arise with the realization of the total negation and absence of the object of refutation, it is very easy for us to fall into nihilism. 

In addition, it is mentioned in the texts by Nagarjuna, Aryadeva and Chandrakirti that a realization of voidness is complete and correct if it itself induces and enhances the understanding of dependent origination. It’s not just about seeing voidness in the sense of the total absence of persons and all phenomena having their existence established by some inherent, self-establishing nature. The complete understanding of voidness needs to lead to and enhance the dependent origination side of the path – that the existence of the self and all phenomena can only be established in terms of dependent arising alone. With this, our understanding and confident belief and trust in our gurus and karmic cause and effect will be strengthened. 

The Obstacles for Bodhichitta to Arise

In terms of bodhichitta, we have to look at what the central obstacles are that make it difficult for bodhichitta to arise. One thing that prevents bodhichitta from arising is when we think that personal liberation is enough. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama was young, he thought about voidness and that if he were to generate this mind, he would achieve cessation: “Once I achieve cessation, I will sleep peacefully.” That is what he reported thinking back then. Later on, he received teachings on Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Then he realized that his earlier thinking was not the way to practice bodhichitta. 

So, thinking that simple liberation is enough is one way of preventing bodhichitta from being developed. The other way is when we feel that achieving mere liberation will completely fulfill our wishes for our own welfare and we combine that with indifference toward others’ suffering. We feel that achieving the maximum benefit for ourselves is complete and enough. These two ways of thinking are the main obstacles to the development of bodhichitta. 

Enlightenment for the Benefit of Others, but also for One’s Own Benefit

With bodhichitta, we talk a lot about what fulfills the purposes of self and the purposes of others. Even in terms of the enlightened state, we talk about what benefits and fulfills one’s own self-purposes, which is the attainment of a Dharmakaya, and what benefits and fulfills the purposes and aims of others, which is the attainment of a Form Body, a Rupakaya. 

The mind training texts we have tend to focus on how to cultivate caring for the welfare of others and, in relation to that, how to reduce self-cherishing. What is not clearly stated in many of these texts is the process of how to achieve the complete fulfillment of one’s own purposes and aims. The focus is really on encouraging us to work for the benefit of others. Thus, we often think that mere liberation is the complete fulfillment of what is for our own personal benefit, while the fully enlightened state of Buddhahood is essentially for others. It is important to understand that achieving the fully enlightened state of a Buddha is also the complete fulfillment of what is for our own benefit as well. Although this point is less thought about because it is mentioned less in the texts, it is an important point to include in our own thinking. 

In his Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Je Tsongkhapa gives us advice concerning the antidotes to thinking that attaining mere liberation is the complete fulfillment of what is for our own benefit. He says that if the question is, “What state do you need to achieve to completely fulfill what is of benefit to you?” and somebody tells you to focus on others, that’s not really a direct answer to the question. 

There is nothing wrong with working for the sake of the benefit or both self and others. Bodhichitta has, in fact, this sense of wishing to attain enlightenment in order to completely fulfill the purposes and aims of both self and others, and so to benefit both. There is nothing wrong with these two going along with each other. 

At what point and how do we bring this into our practice? At the stage of taking refuge. This is good advice to remember. This is advice I received from my teacher on how to integrate less common explanations into our practice. Since it’s a tremendously auspicious day and so I wanted to share this with you. 

Questions to Think About after These Teachings

One of the things to think about after these teachings are finished is why, for achieving a Dharmakaya, it is insufficient to single-pointedly focus on voidness in a non-conceptual state of total absorption that is not held with the force of bodhichitta? The texts say that to provide an antidote to the cognitive obscurations, we need the discriminating awareness of voidness that is upheld with a bodhichitta mind. I want you to contemplate on why meditating on voidness alone, without bodhichitta, cannot provide the antidote to our cognitive obstructions and give rise to the attainment of a Dharmakaya. And why can’t it also give rise to the attainment of a Form Body, a Rupakaya?

There are shravaka arhats and pratyekabuddha arhats, both of whom have attained liberation from samsaric rebirth, and there are bodhisattvas attaining enlightenment.

The paths of all three are discussed in texts such as Maitreya’s Filigree of Realizations, Abhisamayalamkara, which presents them from the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka perspective. It talks about how shravakas, those of the listener vehicle, are unable to rely on the methods that are the antidotes to the cognitive obstructions. But the text seems to imply that pratyekabuddhas are able to strive, in some way, in the methods to attain the Dharmakaya of a fully enlightened Buddha; they are able to be supported, in some way, by methods that are the antidote to the cognitive obstructions. Yet, in the text, it also says that pratyekabuddhas don’t develop bodhichitta. So, it connects to my question of why relying on voidness alone, not sustained by bodhichitta, cannot give rise to the attainment of a Dharmakaya. This is your homework, to think about this.