Renouncing Suffering

Review of the Three Principal Pathways 

Tsongkhapa emphasized that there are three principal paths, meaning three principal pathways of the mind, or ways of thinking, ways of understanding that are the essence of the graded path. These are renunciation or the determination to be free, a bodhichitta aim, and a correct understanding of voidness or emptiness. 

Renunciation is a state of mind that is looking in two directions. It is looking in one direction toward suffering and the causes of suffering, and in the other direction, it’s looking toward liberation or freedom. In the direction of suffering and its causes, it has the willingness to give them up, to let go of them, to get rid of them, and not just to get rid of them temporarily, but to get rid of them forever. In the other direction, it is determined to achieve that state of liberation.

In the usual presentation of renunciation, the object that we want to renounce, or get rid of, is, first of all, our own suffering. When it’s aimed at others’ suffering, it’s called compassion. Its standard or more usual presentation is that it is aiming at our suffering of samsara in general and its causes, and specifically our own samsaric experience. Samsara means uncontrollably recurring rebirth, along with all the various problems and sufferings and difficulties that are part of that.

The Suffering of Unhappiness and of Change

When we look at the general presentation of suffering in Buddhism, we talk about three types of suffering. We have the suffering of unhappiness. This we all know; we’re very familiar with what that’s like, all the various aspects of it – sadness, unhappiness, displeasure and so on. The wish to get rid of that and to be happy is something that even animals have, so that’s no great accomplishment to have it as a human being; that’s not what Buddhism is focusing on specifically.

It’s always very helpful and important, I think, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes this all the time, to differentiate between what are the common features that we find in the Buddhist teachings and what is specifically Buddhist. This wish to not be hungry, to not be cold, and so on and trying to get out of it, to be safe, and so on, to be out of danger, as I said, that’s not at all particularly Buddhist; it’s not even specifically human.

The second type of suffering is what’s called “the suffering of change,” or the problem of change. This is referring to our usual ordinary forms of happiness, and although of course, they’re very pleasant, there are some problems associated with them. The first problem is that they don’t last. The second problem is that they never satisfy, as we never have enough; we never have enough of affection, love, pleasure, etc. Otherwise, why do we always want more? Then, when we no longer have it, we suffer greatly. Any moment of ordinary happiness that we have is insecure because we never know what we’re going to experience in the next moment, what we’re going to feel like. We might feel happy now, but the next moment, all of a sudden, we feel quite depressed.

Here, with renunciation, we would really be dissatisfied with this type of happiness. We would not be satisfied with just a second-rate type of happiness. What we would like is lasting happiness that satisfies and never goes away, wouldn’t we? Well, there’s nothing particularly Buddhist about that. We have this same sort of wish for eternal happiness and so on in many other religions. In terms of these two aspects of suffering, we have to also approach it quite realistically and soberly.

Of course, just because getting rid of unhappiness is not the deepest thing that we can do, that doesn’t mean that we don’t try to do that. Of course, when we’re hungry, we eat. In terms of ordinary happiness, when we say we want to renounce that, that doesn’t mean that now we never do anything nice or never laugh and never enjoy ourselves. It certainly doesn’t mean that. The point is to not see this as the ultimate goal that is going to be the greatest thing in the world. We see it for what it is. It’s not going to last, we don’t know what’s going to happen next, and it’s never going to satisfy. “OK, I accept that, but nevertheless, if I am in this relatively happier type of situation, I can take advantage of that.”

This is part of the teachings of the precious human life and the eight factors of an especially precious life. In other words, we are able to live comfortably and have enough to eat and have enough money, we can come to teachings, we can study, we can do retreats, we can use what we have to help others without being overwhelmed by suffering and problems. Sometimes it’s very important to relax and have a relatively so-called “good time,” but with the understanding that it’s no big deal. It gives us more energy, more breathing space, so that we can again apply ourselves more fully to the spiritual path, to helping others.

If we have gross suffering, we try to transform that and even use that on the path. I mean, first of all, we try to get out of it, but if it’s difficult to get out, let’s say we’re sick or something like that, then while taking medicine or whatever, we try to use that circumstance in a conducive way. It helps us to develop compassion and understanding for other people who are similarly sick or disabled.

I remember one friend of mine who developed a disease that left him in a wheelchair. He said this was one of the most beneficial things that had happened to him because, instead of just running like crazy around the world and doing all sorts of things, it gave him the circumstance to really work on himself, to meditate and follow the spiritual path.

If we have general ordinary happiness, then as I mentioned, we use it as a circumstance to benefit others. In both cases, we try not to overinflate either the suffering or the ordinary happiness. We don’t make a big thing out of it.

Differentiating the Two Levels of Renunciation

When we think in terms of the ordinary type of suffering that we have, the suffering of unhappiness, and then the unsatisfactoriness of even ordinary happiness that we have, we can consider them in terms of two timeframes. The larger scope of renunciation, which is the standard description of it, is the determination to turn away from all sufferings in all uncontrollably recurring rebirth. This includes both the unhappiness and also the ordinary happiness we might experience in any type of rebirth that we might have and have the determination to get free of that.

Tsongkhapa, in his short text The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, differentiates two levels of renunciation. However, he doesn’t do this in his much larger presentations of the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. There, he only speaks of renunciation in terms of one level. In this short little text, he differentiates two stages. Although the more advanced level is that wish to get free of suffering and its causes in all future lifetimes and achieve nirvana, liberation, there’s an earlier stage that he describes, which is to turn away from our obsession with what’s going on in this lifetime – not just the unhappiness and temporary happiness types of suffering, but our obsession with this lifetime and everything that’s going on in this lifetime, and to be more concerned with having a more favorable situation in the immediately following rebirth or, in general, in future rebirths.

Now, the aim that we have with that type of renunciation is not particularly Buddhist, is it? There are many religions that teach us to not be obsessed with this lifetime and aim for rebirth in heaven, for example. That’s not particularly Buddhist at all. In Buddhism, we would aim for one of the better types of rebirth situations as a temporary step because we realize that although we’re aiming for renunciation from any type of rebirth altogether, it’s going to take a long time to gain liberation.

We take ourselves and our spiritual path seriously and have a realistic attitude about it. With an understanding of rebirth – which is, of course, assumed here in Buddhism, but can’t really be assumed with Westerners – within that context, then we want to make sure that in future rebirths, in future lives, we continue to be able to have the favorable circumstances to continue working toward liberation. We take that very seriously. It’s not that we want a better and better one each time, like a new model car that every year has to be better, so that the best rebirth that we have is nirvana, liberation. That’s just a misconception of what liberation is.

What we want to have is not too much worldly happiness, because if we have too much of that, then we become very lazy. We’re not motivated to do anything to get out of it, because it’s very comfortable. To renounce it, we really have to look very deeply into those sorts of situations to discover the problems there; usually, very rich people have lots of mental and emotional problems, so that’s fairly obvious. We want just enough happiness. It’s like having just enough food, good food that sustains us. So we want just enough happiness, just enough favorable circumstances that will allow us to really devote our energy and time to making further progress – not too much, not too little.

As I was suggesting with our discussion of Dharma-Lite, even this level of renunciation is really very advanced for us Westerners, who have difficulty with the whole idea of rebirth. We need to find a preliminary step before this that will give us access to the Buddhist path. It’s like trying to get onto a train that is moving very quickly. The Buddhist path is already moving very quickly, and we can’t really catch up with it very easily, so we have to somehow jump on it an earlier stage. The train has to really slow down so that we can get on.

As I said, when we add an earlier step, we have to be quite clear that, “Well, this isn’t in the original teachings.” However, we are trying to add something that doesn’t in any way violate the Buddha’s teachings or compromise them. What is most important in ensuring this is that we never deny or reject the rest of the path, the Real Thing Dharma, but see any preparatory step that we do simply as that, as preparation. I think that in this context, with this honest approach, we can speak of what usually is our aim as Western practitioners in the beginning, which is just, through the Dharma methods, to improve our samsara of this lifetime.

We can formulate it in a similar fashion to the way that Tsongkhapa formulates it in this text. Tsongkhapa formulated the two stages as turning away from our obsession with this lifetime and taking our major interest in future lives. His Holiness always says fifty/fifty is a healthy approach here. Don’t be a fanatic. We have to take care of this lifetime as well because here we are. The second, more advanced level is turning away from our obsession with future rebirths and aiming for complete liberation.

We take care of future rebirths just in case we don’t happen to achieve liberation in this lifetime, so that we’ve taken care of the next rebirth. Of course, in aiming for a higher goal, sort of as a side product, it does help us to fulfill the lesser goals.

A similar formulation that I think could be our healthy Dharma-Lite step would be to turn away from our obsession with just this immediate moment, our immediate gratification, and think more in terms of long-term consequences later in our lives. We take interest in what’s going to happen to us later in our lives and don’t just abuse our body with drugs and all sorts of wild things as a youth or having a horrible posture without thinking about, “How is that going to affect my health later on?” For instance, getting arthritis because of being bent over a computer at the age of 20.

Of course, we could have a little flavor of Mahayana here, that we think of the consequences of what we’re doing on others. We could even add a little bit of flavor of future lives here that would be acceptable to our Western mentality, and which would be a very good intermediate step for thinking in terms of future lives. This would be to turn our interest away from our obsession with just the immediate situation and take interest in the consequences this will have on future generations.

Like for instance, instead of just exploiting all the resources and destroying the environment, ask, “What’s going to be the effect of this on our children and grandchildren, and future generations beyond our lifetimes?” I think this is a valid intermediate step, just as Tsongkhapa added the valid intermediate step of renunciation, thinking in terms of turning away from obsession with this lifetime alone.

All-Pervasive Suffering

As I said, there are three types of suffering that Buddha mentioned. To overcome the first two, the problems of suffering and the problems of change or ordinary happiness, that’s not particularly Buddhist. What is particularly Buddhist here is the third type of suffering, which is what’s called “all-pervasive suffering,” the all-pervasive problem, and having the determination to be free from that. This refers to our uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth, with a body and mind that will experience the first two types of suffering. To renounce this all-pervasive problem, we need to renounce its cause.

What is the true cause of all suffering? The true source, the true cause of all our problems, all our suffering in every samsaric lifetime, is what we call “unawareness,” usually translated as “ignorance;” but that, at least in English, has the connotation of being stupid. There’s nothing implied in terms of being stupid here; it’s just that we don’t know, or we believe or know it incorrectly. It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with us, so there is no guilt involved here, no moral judgment.

In general, in Buddhism, we differentiate between two levels of unawareness here. One deals with unawareness of karma, behavioral cause and effect. We’re not talking about the laws of physics, where we know that if we kick a ball, it will go a certain distance based on the force and the angle. We’re not talking about that type of cause and effect. We’re talking about behavioral cause and effect, and we’re not necessarily talking about the effect of our behavior on others; we’re talking about the effect of our behavior on ourselves in terms of what we experience in the future as the result of our actions now.

Thus, we are unaware and naive about what are going to be the consequences of our actions, of our behavior, in terms of what we will experience in the future. Either we don’t really know, or we don’t even think about what the effect will be. We think it’ll have no effect, like, “I can abuse my body and push really hard and take drugs and stay up all night and all of that, and it’s not going to have any effect.” Or we know it incorrectly and we think, “If I get drunk and take drugs all the time, this is going to make me happy. This is going to solve my problems.”

When we think in terms of turning away from our obsession with just immediate gratification, what we need to work on is our unawareness of the consequences of our behavior and start to think in terms of what we’ll experience later in our lives. Most often, however, we don’t really experience the results of our present behavior in this lifetime, because we’re not just talking about what’s called the “man-made results” of our behavior or just the immediate result – for example, we rape somebody and experience the pleasure and happiness of an orgasm. We’re not talking about that type of result of the behavior in terms of our immediate experience. We’re not talking about just what happens immediately when we get angry and feel a little bit better because we yelled at somebody or punched them in the face.

What we’re talking about are “result that will ripen.” That’s the technical term. In other words, what we’re looking at are the types of tendencies that we build up from this type of behavior and habits that are going to affect very much our future behavior and our future experience in terms of how we behave and what types of situations and relationships we tend to get into. They also affect whether we’re in a good mood, a bad mood, etc., regardless of what we’re actually doing, and in a broader perspective, the type of rebirth situations that we tend to go toward – these are the types of results that ripen, and they ripen mostly in future lives. This is something that is really very important to understand, but not so easy to understand. 

As I was trying to indicate previously, we can’t really do away with rebirth in the whole Buddhist presentation, because we could be a very sincere practitioner, work very, very hard during our lifetime and then we develop a terrible, painful cancer and die a horrible, painful death. Then we say, “I didn’t deserve that,” because we are not looking at what we experience from the perspective of previous lifetimes. However, that’s a very confused way of looking at it.

Of course, what we don’t have here in the Buddhist presentation is that what we experience is going to be like a reward or a punishment, which is an ethics based on following rules. That’s not the way that Buddhist ethics work. In our Western cultures, ethics are based on two sources. Firstly, there are certain laws, certain rules that are divine laws, set by a divine all-powerful being, and we have to obey them. If we don’t obey them, we’re bad; we’re guilty and we’re punished. If we do obey the laws, we are good and are rewarded. This is one aspect of our Western ethics, the biblical heritage. We can see that the whole issue of ethics is basically an issue of obedience. It’s very interesting and very culturally specific. This is characteristic of a specific culture; it’s not a general, universal thing at all.

The other heritage that we have is from the ancient Greeks. Here, we have laws that are set not by some divine being, but by a king or a group of people, a legislature. These are civil laws. With them, we have the same issue of obedience to the laws, the civil laws, and if we’re a good citizen, we are rewarded, and everything goes well, and if we disobey the civil laws, we are a criminal and are punished.

Buddhist ethics is not at all based on obedience, so when we do something unethical, it’s not because we were disobedient and bad. Rather, when we behave destructively, it is because we are acting on the basis of disturbing emotions – greed, attachment, hatred, anger, naivety, and so on. These types of emotions are destructive and are based on our unawareness, whereas constructive behavior is not based on greed, anger, naivety, and so on. At least on the most fundamental level, it could be based of course on good intentions, but often good intentions are mixed with complete naivety.

When we act destructively, or somebody else acts destructively, the reason for that is not because they’re disobedient and a bad person; the reason for that is that they are just unaware of the consequences, they just didn’t know. It’s a fault in their understanding. The moth flies into the flame not because it is bad, and it disobeyed the law, “Do not go into the flame.” It flew into the flame because it had no idea; it was completely unaware. That’s a very clear example. That moth flying into the flame inspires or moves us to feel compassion, not to feel indignant anger, “You’re a bad moth, you have to be punished!”

So, the first type of unawareness is unawareness of behavioral cause and effect, and what we can include here is not just unawareness of the consequences of our behavior on ourselves, but also how this actually works. The consequences are not rewards and punishments because of obedience or disobedience.

When we differentiate these three levels or three steps of increasing the scope of renunciation – renunciation of obsession with the immediate moment, this lifetime only, or all future lifetimes – then the first cause of suffering that we renounce or that we want to get rid of is our unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. We act destructively, either just wanting immediate gratification and not knowing how that’s going to affect our experience later in this life, or we act destructively in this lifetime in general because we don’t understand, and we’re unaware of how that’s going to affect our experience in future lives.

Distinguishing the False “Me” and the Conventional “Me” 

There’s a second type of unawareness that is much deeper, which is unawareness of reality, the reality of persons, how we and others exist. In most of the Buddhist explanations, that’s the major type of unawareness that we deal with here, but in the most sophisticated Buddhist presentation, we say that it’s unawareness not just of how persons exist, me and you, but also unawareness of how everything exists.

This now brings in the whole discussion of emptiness, voidness. What happens is that our minds project fantasies of impossible ways of how things exist. Like for instance, about “me” as a person, the mind tends to project the appearance that there’s a separate, solid me that is a independently existing entity, separate from the body, separate from the mind, separate from the emotions. We can speak of this on many different levels, but the actual level that is being discussed here is that there’s such a me that is self-sufficiently knowable, one that can be known by itself. This means that it could be known all by itself without, at the same time, knowing anything else.

When we look at ourselves in the mirror, for example, what is the appearance? “I see myself in the mirror.” We say that, don’t we? It feels like that. We don’t think, “I see a body in the mirror, and on the basis of that body, I see myself.” Banging our foot against the leg of a table in the dark we say, “I hurt myself,” as though we could know that me independently of the foot and the pain. When we say, “I know Patricio,” it is as if we could know Patricio separate from knowing what his body looks like, or from knowing anything about him. It is as if we could just know Patricio. Similarly, we believe, “I know myself,” or “I don’t know myself,” or “I’m not acting like myself today,” or “I have to find myself.”

All these sorts of things are indicative of this type of appearance that our mind automatically produces of an independently existing, self-sufficiently knowable me. The unawareness is that we don’t know, we are unaware that this doesn’t correspond to reality. With unawareness, we actually believe that it is true, that there is a self-sufficiently knowable me, sort of an entity with a big, solid line around it. Because we identify with what we call the “false me” in Buddhism, we act on that basis. We feel insecure about it, and so we have to defend it, we have to assert it, we have to prove it, and improve ourselves. That false solid me always has to have its way. It’s the most important one in the universe because there’s a solid line around it, “There’s them out there who are against this me in here.” “I have to get my way.” Then, we get angry when we don’t get our way, and on that basis, we act in destructive ways.

This is the most commonly accepted form of unawareness here in this context. It is accepted by all the Buddhist presentations. This type of me, which is really a gross inflation, putting a big, solid line around it, is impossible. It’s not corresponding to anything real. When we speak about voidness, what we’re talking about is the absence of this impossible way of existing of this impossible me. Further, when we say “absence,” we don’t just mean, for instance, that somebody is absent from this room but is somewhere else. We’re talking about an absolute absence, that there was never such a thing. That’s what voidness is all about, in very simple terms. It doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t exist at all. We do exist; the “me” that exists is what’s called the “conventional ‘me.’”

We can understand the difference between the conventional “me” and the false me with a very simple example: I’m sitting on this chair. Well, this body is sitting on the chair, isn’t it? Are there two different things sitting on this chair, the body and me? Are they two separate, independent things? Are there big, solid lines around them? Can you see me sitting on the chair independently of seeing the body on the chair? No, obviously not; that’s impossible, except it feels like that. It feels as though I, with a big line around it, am sitting on this chair. It doesn’t even enter my way of thinking that there’s a body on this chair. But we go even further than that. We think, “It’s my chair, not your chair, so don’t you sit on it!”

The false me, the impossible me, is one that exists separately and is knowable separately, independently, from the body, in this case. The conventional “me” is the one that is known in terms of the body, in relation to the body, not as some solid, separate, independent entity.

This is very profound when we think in terms of mental states, “I’m depressed,” “I’m sad,” as if there were a me separate here from the experience of a mental feeling, a mental sensation, and so on, which is changing every moment. “Look at that sad person, that depressed person.” “I am such a sad, depressed person,” independent of changing moments of experience. The impossible me is this separate one, “poor thing,” and the conventional one, the one that actually does exist, is a “me” that’s known in terms of changing moments of experience.

We believe in this false me, which is impossible, because it feels like there’s a separate me, knowable by itself, independent of body, mind, emotions, all these things. We believe in that, we’re unaware that it’s false, and on that basis, we act in all sorts of destructive ways or naively constructive ways. To defend that me, we often act destructively, “I feel threatened by what you just said, so I have to yell at you.” Or we act constructively, but with naivety behind it, like, “I am nice to you, and I do nice things for you because I want to be loved, I want to be appreciated.”

In the end, all this confusion revolves around belief in this false me. As a result of believing in it and acting on that basis, we experience uncontrollably recurring rebirth as the continuing basis for experiencing the suffering of unhappiness and the suffering of change, this ordinary happiness. This is the all-pervasive suffering. Everything that we experience – we’re talking about samsara – is the result of behavior based on this unawareness, through what we speak of as karma. What is so horrible about it is that it perpetuates itself. There continues to be this feeling of a solid me that’s experiencing this karma, and on the basis of that karmic result, we produce more causes. We build up more and perpetuate the process. That’s what’s so horrible about samsaric situations, that they are perpetuating, going on and on and on, unless we do something about it.

Correctly Identifying the Cause of Suffering

The all-pervasive suffering, namely samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and everything that’s happening in every rebirth, just continues going up and down, up and down, not going anywhere. That is the all-pervasive suffering, the third type of suffering, which is only explained and asserted in Buddhism. When we speak about the real-thing renunciation, this is what we are renouncing. We are determined to be free from this all-pervasive problem of samsara and its cause, this unawareness.

We aim for complete liberation from samsara, or what’s called “nirvana,” with which such rebirth is never going to recur. We don’t just want a temporary vacation from it; we want to get rid of it completely; that’s called the “true stopping” or “true cessation,” so that it never recurs. This is distinctly Buddhist.

Now, just determining to be free from uncontrollably recurring rebirth by itself, that’s not specifically Buddhist, because all the other Indian religions use the same words: “samsara” and a slightly different word, which Buddhism also uses, “moksha”, for liberation. They are aiming for the same thing: liberation from samsara, from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. There’s nothing distinctly Buddhist about that. What is distinctly Buddhist is correctly identifying the true cause of suffering, the true cause of samsara, and renouncing that, developing the determination to be free of that. 

In the process of having this renunciation, although our major focus is on getting rid of the all-pervasive suffering, the true cause, we may need to be willing to give up circumstances that feed samsara more. In fact, we become willing to give up anything that we need to in order to get rid of this. This is incredibly advanced. What we are determined to get free of is absolutely everything that we know in our experience. That’s really quite radical because everything of our experience is samara, this all-pervading suffering.

We can see why Tsongkhapa is suggesting here an earlier stage to this kind of renunciation. That level of renunciation is a bit too much to jump directly into. For us Westerners, even this easier step that Tsongkhapa suggests as a first-step renunciation is too advanced for most of us. We need an earlier step than that. Then, we progress through these different levels of renunciation.

To have this renunciation really sincerely, remember it’s aiming in two directions: one is aimed at the suffering and wants to get rid of it, the other is aimed at the state of liberation and wants to achieve that. It requires correct identification of what the object is that we are determined to get rid of or to get out of, and what is the object or state that we’re determined to achieve. We have to correctly recognize both and know what they are.

In addition, we have to be convinced that it’s possible to get rid of this suffering and its causes forever, and that it’s possible to achieve this state of liberation. The two obviously are interconnected; it’s not that we can only achieve one and not the other. It cannot just be based on blind faith that, “Well, Buddha said so,” or, “My teacher said so, so I believe it. I want to be a good disciple, obedient, and I will obey and not say anything.” Buddha himself said, “Never accept something that I say just out of respect for me but test it out yourself like when buying gold.” We need to really be convinced through logic and reason that it actually is possible to achieve liberation; otherwise, our aiming for that can’t possibly be sincere, it can’t possibly be stable.

The issue of bodhichitta, which is turning away from the inability to help everybody and aiming, instead, to achieve enlightenment, that state in which we will be able to help everybody, has a similar structure to renunciation. However, when we speak of bodhichitta, we don’t usually include this aspect that renunciation has of, “I want to turn away from this inability.” The emphasis is on aiming for enlightenment and for a specific purpose, to benefit everybody as much as is possible.

Nevertheless we need to address the same issue with both renunciation and bodhichitta; namely: Is it possible to actually achieve liberation from samsara, from uncontrollably recurring rebirth and suffering? Is it actually possible to reach enlightenment, the state in which we would be best able to help everybody? Of course, we need to recognize what those two states are. On top of that, is it possible to achieve them? We need to also be convinced that, “I am personally capable of doing this,” not just in general, “Is it possible?” Not, “Buddha was able to do it, and these other people are able to do it, but I’m too stupid. I’m no good, so I can’t do it.”

To be convinced of this, we need to understand the nature of the mind and what we call “Buddha-nature,” both of which involve understanding voidness. 


You’re talking about reaching enlightenment to be able to help others, but we can see that those others are also very, very confused in terms of that false I or false me, and when you try to help them, they get angry, and they won’t let you and all that. How could we possibly help them?

First of all, by being patient. The bodhisattva path entails many different positive, constructive states of mind that we need to develop, which will enable us to help others, and it provides many methods for achieving them. We need to develop equanimity, with which we don’t have favorites; we’re open to helping everybody equally. We also need love, the wish for others to be happy and have the causes for happiness, and compassion, the wish for others to be free from problems and the causes of problems. Also, we need the attitude with which we take responsibility to actually do something about it and not just responsibility to help them a little bit superficially, but full responsibility to help them reach enlightenment. For this, we need to achieve enlightenment ourselves so that we can help them as fully as possible. That’s bodhichitta; we aim for our individual enlightenments.

We develop this attitude that, “I’m going to try and help everybody equally, not get discouraged, not give up on anybody just because they’re difficult.” Then, we need what are called the “far-reaching attitudes,” sometimes translated as the “perfections”: being very generous, giving of our time, our energy, not just giving flowers. Also, having ethical self-discipline to restrain from doing anything harmful, discipline to actually train ourselves, and the discipline to actually help others, even if we don’t feel like it. Patience not to get angry or discouraged when they don’t want our help or what we suggest doesn’t work. Perseverance that we’re not going to give up, that we’re going to continue no matter what, and we love what we’re doing, working on ourselves and trying to help others, we take great joy in it.

Then, there is mental stability, and that doesn’t mean just concentration, it’s emotional stability as well. We’re not going up and down all the time in our moods or get distracted, “I am attracted to this one because they’re good-looking.” And, of course, discriminating awareness to be able to discriminate between what is helpful, what’s harmful, what is reality, and what’s just a projection or fantasy. The bodhisattva training is very extensive in terms of developing all these aspects as well as a great deal of understanding of skillful methods, and so on, so that we can help others as much as is possible.

Nevertheless, even if we become a Buddha, we’re still not able to just snap our fingers and omnipotently eliminate everybody’s suffering. If that were possible, Buddha would have done that already. We can offer advice, we can help as much as possible, but the other person has to take that advice. The other person has to be receptive; we can’t force anything. As we saw, the deepest cause of everybody’s suffering is the same: this unawareness. As a Buddha, what we can do is explain in as skillful a way as possible – according to the level of the person – reality and so on. A Buddha can’t understand for somebody else; they have to understand for themselves.

You have been talking about us preparing ourselves or preparing for our future rebirths and working for them, but it sounds like it would then be very easy to get more human rebirths or precious human rebirths. I remember having heard that it is very, very difficult. Is that so?

It is very, very difficult to get a precious human rebirth if we don’t do anything to build up the causes for it. It’s not going to happen so easily just by itself as a result of what we did a million lifetimes ago. We have to put in and build up very strongly the causes for it now. What are the primary causes? The most important cause is ethical self-discipline. This is something that, as humans, we are uniquely able to do. Animals can’t do that. Animals are overwhelmed by their instincts – the cat is going to torture the mouse, and the lion is going to hunt. We’re humans and can exercise self-control.

Also, what is very important is making sincere prayers for achieving a precious human rebirth, which doesn’t mean prayers, like, “Oh Buddha, grant it to me if I’m a nice girl or a nice boy and I praise you all the time.” It is a very strong directing of our intention and our positive energy, specifically with a dedication, “By the positive force of everything constructive that I have done and am doing, may I achieve enlightenment. To attain enlightenment, I need to continue having precious human rebirths that will allow me to continue working to reach that enlightenment. May I always have a precious human rebirth, always meet the Dharma, always be cared for by really well-qualified teachers in all my lifetimes up to enlightenment.” Making prayers be specific is important.

In Ganden Monastery in Tibet, there was a throne, a very high seat of the head of the Gelugpa order, the Ganden throne. One day – there are animals in the monastery as well – a cow walked into the temple and sat on the throne. The monks were very surprised at this, and so they asked a very great teacher there, “What is the cause for this?” The teacher said, “In a previous lifetime, this being made prayers to be able to sit on the Ganden throne but wasn’t specific enough.”

In addition to ethical self-discipline and specific prayers, we also need to supplement that with the other far-reaching attitudes of generosity, patience, perseverance, mental stability and discriminating awareness. Those are the causes for a precious human rebirth.