Renouncing Suffering

Tsongkhapa empahsized that there are three principle paths, meaning three principal pathways are pathways of the mind, 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, 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, its object that it wants to renounce, get rid of, is first of all our own suffering. When it’s aimed at other’s suffering, it’s called compassion. Its standard presentation, its more usual presentation is that it is aiming at our suffering of samsara in general and its causes and specifically our own samsaric experience. Now, samsara means uncontrollably recurring rebirth and with all the various problems and sufferings and difficulties that are part of that.

In other words, when we look at the general presentation of suffering in Buddhism, we talk about three types of suffering. We have the suffering of pain, unhappiness, and this we all know, we’re very familiar with what that’s like, all the various aspects of it – sadness, unhappiness, pain, displeasure... 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. So this wish to not be hungry, to not be cold, and so on and trying to get out it, to be safe, and so on, to be out of danger, as I say, 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 pleasure, and although of course they’re very pleasant, there are some problems associated with it. The first problem is that it doesn’t last. The second problem is that it never satisfies, we never have enough; we never have enough of affection, love, pleasure. Otherwise why do we always want more? And when we no longer have it, we suffer greatly. Any moment of ordinary happiness that we have is very, very 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.

So here, we would really be dissatisfied with this type of happiness; a certain type of renunciation. 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, this sort of thing, don’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. So 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 pain and 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 you say you want to renounce that, that doesn’t mean that now you never do anything nice and you never have pleasure and you never laugh and you never enjoy yourself. 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, 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, if 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. 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, understanding for other people who are similarly sick or disabled.

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

When we think in terms of the ordinary type of suffering that we have, the suffering of pain and unhappiness, and then the unsatisfactoriness of even ordinary happy things that we have – then there are different scopes, different time frames within which we can look at these two variables. Renunciation, as I said, the standard description of it, the wish to turn away from all suffering of all uncontrollably recurring rebirth, that’s the larger scope, that’s the full scope. So we could think in terms of the pain of any type of rebirth forever and also the ordinary happiness within any type of rebirth that we might have and have the determination to get free of that.

But Tsongkhapa, in his short text The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, differentiates two levels of renunciation. This he doesn’t do in his much larger presentations of lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. It only speaks of renunciation in terms of one level. But in this short little text he differentiates two stages. And 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 happiness, the 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 next lifetime, in immediately following rebirth or in general, in future rebirths.

Now, that type of renunciation, the aim that we have there, that’s 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. As I said, that’s not particularly Buddhist at all. But 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, although we are aiming to get that type of renunciation, it’s going to take a long time to gain liberation.

We take ourselves and our spiritual path and have a realistic attitude about it – we take all of that very sincerely and realistically. This is what I was speaking about yesterday. And with an understanding of rebirth – which is of course assumed here in Buddhism, which as I mentioned yesterday 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.

But what we want to have is the not-too-much worldly happiness, not too much of that, because if you have too much of that, then you become very lazy. You’re not motivated to do anything to get out of it, because it’s very, very comfortable and you really have to look very deeply in those sort of situations to discover the problems – although usually very, 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.

So, 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. And so we need to find some preliminary step before this that will give us access to the Buddhist path. It’s like trying to get onto a train which is moving very, 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 get an earlier stage. The train has to really slow down so that we can get on.

But as I said, when we add an earlier step we have to be quite clear that, “Well, this isn’t in the original teachings.” But 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 preparation step that we do simply as that, as a preparation. I think that in this context, with this honest approach, that 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.

Just as the way that Tsongkhapa formulates it in this text, we can formulate it in a similar fashion. Tsongkhapa formulated the two stages as: turn away from our obsession with this lifetime and take 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 level is: turn away from our obsession with future rebirths and aim for complete liberation.

So again, we take care of future rebirths just in case we don’t happen to achieve liberation in this lifetime or in the next lifetime – well, in this lifetime specifically, so that we’ve taken care of the next rebirth. And 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 life. Take interest in what’s going to happen to us later in our lives; don’t just abuse your body with drugs and all sorts of wild things as a youth or a horrible posture without thinking about, “Well, how is that going to affect my health later on?” Arthritis, because of being bent over a computer at the age of twenty.”

Of course we could have a little flavor of Mahayana here, that we think of the consequences of what I’m doing on others. And 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 into thinking in terms of future lives, which would be to turn away our interest from our obsession with just the immediate situation and take interest in the consequences this will have on future generations.

Like for instance just exploiting all the resources and destroying the environment, “Well, what’s going to be the effect of this on our children and grandchildren and so on, beyond our lifetimes?” So, 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 the obsession with this lifetime alone.

But as I mentioned, there are three types of suffering that Buddha mentioned. And to overcome the first two, the problems of suffering and pain and the problems of change or ordinary happiness, that’s not particularly Buddhist. What is particularly Buddhist here is the third type of suffering and the determination to be free from that, which is what’s called all-pervasive suffering, the all-pervasive problem.

What is going to be involved here with this third type is: what is the true cause of all the other types of suffering? The source, the true cause of all our problems, all our suffering in every 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 in terms of being stupid here, it’s just that we don’t know or we believe incorrectly, we know it incorrectly. It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with me; so no guilt involved here, no moral judgment.

In general, in Buddhism we differentiate two levels here. One deals with unawareness of karma, behavioral cause and effect. We’re not talking about the laws of physics, that you kick a ball and it will go a certain distance based on the force and the angle. We’re not talking about that type of cause and effect. But we’re talking about behavioral cause and effect and we’re not talking about necessarily 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.

So we are unaware and naive about what are going to be the consequences of our actions, of our behavior in terms of what we ourselves will experience in the future. Either we don’t really know – 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 that, “Well, if I get drunk all the time and take drugs all the time, this is going to make me happy. This is going to solve my problems.”

So 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, when you start to think in terms of what we’ll experience later in our lives. Very, very often, in fact most often, we don’t really experience the consequences of our behavior, the effects of our behavior, the results of our behavior I should say, in this lifetime, because we’re not just talking about what’s called the “man-made results” of our behavior.

I don’t know if that expression means anything in Spanish, it probably doesn’t, from the way expression reveals. But what that’s talking about is just the immediate result, it’s like you get a very gross result: you rape somebody and well, you experience an orgasm, you experience happiness. So we’re not talking about that type of result of the behavior in terms of our experience; we’re not talking about just what happens immediately when you get angry and you feel a little bit better because you yelled at somebody, punched them in the face.

What we’re talking about is a result that will ripen, that’s the technical word. In other words, what we’re looking at is the types of tendencies that we build up from this type of behavior and habits which are going to affect very much our future behavior and our future experience in terms of how we behave, in terms of what type of situations and relationships we tend to get into. And just 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 type of results that ripen mostly ripen in future lives.

So this is something that is really very important to understand and not so easy to understand. As I was trying to indicate yesterday, you 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. So you say, “Well, I didn’t deserve that” – 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 – ethics based on following rules. That’s not the way that Buddhist ethics works. These are two aspects of our Western cultures, which are: certain laws, certain rules that are divine laws, set by a divine being, an all powerful being, and we have to obey and if we don’t obey, we are bad, we’re guilty and we are punished. If we do obey the laws, we are rewarded, and if we violate it, we have been disobedient – 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, 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, but are set by a group of people: civil laws, legislature, this type of thing. And then we have the same issue of obedience to the laws, the civil laws and that 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 we are punished.

Buddhist ethics is not at all based on obedience, so when you do something unethical, it’s not because you were disobedient and bad. Rather, what is destructive is behavior which is based on disturbing emotions – greed, attachment, hatred, anger, naivety. That’s destructive. These type of things; and that is 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.

So 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 just are unaware, 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. So 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!”

Now, when we say then that the first form of unawareness is unawareness of behavioral cause and effect, 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 scope of renunciation, then the cause of suffering that we renounce, that we want to get rid of, is our unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. We act destructively, either just wanting immediate gratification and we don’t know 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.

But there’s this second type of unawareness, which is much deeper, which is unawareness of reality, the reality of persons, how we exist and others exist. In most of the Buddhist explanations, that’s the major type of focus 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 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 – this is a separate 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, it could 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, what is the appearance? “I see myself in the mirror.” We say that, don’t we? And 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, that myself that is independent and we can think of that me independent of the foot and the pain. When we say, “I know Patricio,” as if we could know Patricio separate from knowing what his body looks like, knowing anything about him. As if we could just know Patricio, or “I know myself,” or “I don’t know myself,” or “I’m not acting like myself today,” “I have to find myself.”

All these sort of things are indicative of this type of appearance that our mind automatically produces. And the unawareness is that we don’t know, we are unaware that this doesn’t correspond with 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. And because we identify with this what we call the “false me” in Buddhism, then we act on that basis. We feel very insecure about it, we have to defend it, we have to assert it, we have to prove it, and improve myself. And that 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. Then on that basis of course we act in destructive ways.

This is the most commonly accepted form of unawareness here in this context, in terms of accepted by all the Buddhist presentations. This type of me, which is really a gross inflation, putting a big, solid line around it – that is impossible. That’s not referring to anything real. So when we speak about voidness, what we’re talking about is the absence of this impossible way of existing, this impossible me. And when we say absence, we don’t just mean that like somebody is absent from this room but is somewhere else, but we’re talking about an absolute absence: there was never such a thing. That’s what voidness is all about, put in very simple terms. We exist, but 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? So 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? And 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, 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. “It’s my chair, not your chair, so don’t you sit on it!”

So the false me, the impossible me is one that would be separate and 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 some solid, separate, independent entity.

Now, 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 of course. “Look at that sad person, that depressed person.” “I am such a sad, depressed person,” independent of changing moments of experience. So 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 that; 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, so often we 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, it’s revolving around this false me. And as a result, we either experience the suffering of pain, or we experience the suffering of change, this ordinary happiness; everything that we experience – now we’re talking about samsara – everything that we experience is the result of behavior based on this unawareness, through what we speak of in terms of karma. What is so horrible about it is that in what ripens from it, what we experience, there continues to be this feeling of a solid me that’s experiencing this thing, and on the basis of that we produce more. So on that basis, we build up more, we perpetuate it. That’s what’s so horrible about samsaric situations, that it is perpetuating, it just goes on and on and on – unless we do something about it.

Then we have the real thing, samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth and everything that’s happening in every rebirth. It’s just the same thing: up and down, up and down, but it’s not going anywhere. This is the all-pervasive suffering. That’s the third type of suffering; that is only explained and asserted in Buddhism. That’s uniquely Buddhist. When we speak about the real thing, the full 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.

And we aim for complete liberation from that, what’s called nirvana, in which it is never going to recur again. 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 again. This is distinctly Buddhist.

Now, just to determine to be free from uncontrollably recurring rebirth by itself, that’s not specifically Buddhist. Because all the other Indian religions as well use the same words: “samsara,” and a slightly different word which Buddhism uses also: “moksha” for liberation, and 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 cause of suffering, the cause of samsara and renouncing that, the determination to be free of that. That makes it distinctly Buddhist.

Now, in the process of having this renunciation, although our major focus is on getting rid of this all-pervasive suffering, the true cause, we may need to, in the course of that, be willing to give up circumstances that feed that more. In fact, we’re 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 some earlier stage of this. This is a bit too much to jump 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 have these different levels of renunciation.

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

In addition, we have to be convinced that it’s possible to achieve this, possible to get rid of this suffering and its causes, to get rid of it forever, and that it’s possible to achieve this state of liberation. The two obviously are interconnected; it’s not that you can only achieve one and not the other. And 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 buying gold.” We need to really, really be convinced through logic and reason that it actually is possible to achieve liberation; otherwise, as I was mentioning yesterday, our aiming for that can’t possibly be sincere, can’t possibly be stable.

The issue of bodhichitta, which is aiming at achieving enlightenment, turning away from the inability to help everybody and wishing to achieve enlightenment, that state in which we will be able to help everybody, we can see that it has a similar type of structure. But when we speak of bodhichitta, we don’t include here this aspect that’s similar to renunciation of, “I want to turn away from this inability,” but it’s understood that the emphasis is on aiming for enlightenment and for a specific purpose: to benefit everybody as much as is possible.

So 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? And 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 it? And we need to also be convinced that, “I am personally capable of doing this,” not just in general, “Is it possible?” Not just, “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.”

In order to be convinced of this, we need to understand basically the nature of the mind and what we call Buddha-nature, both of which involve understanding voidness.

Are there any questions you have?


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. So how could we possibly help them?

First of all by being patient. The bodhisattva path entails many, many, many different positive, constructive states of mind that we need to develop which will enable us to help others. We need to have and, there are methods for developing, equanimity, in which we don’t have favorites, we’re open to helping everybody equally. Love, the wish for others to be happy and have the causes for happiness. Compassion, the wish for others to be free from problems and the causes of problems. And a sense of taking responsibility to actually do something about it and not just responsibility to help them a little bit superficially, but full responsibility to reach enlightenment, so that we can help them as fully as is possible. That’s bodhichitta, we aim for that.

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. And having ethical self-disciplineto restrain from doing anything harmful and 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. Joyful perseverance that we’re not going to give up, 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.

And mental stability, that doesn’t mean just concentration, emotional stability, we’re not going up and down all the time, distracted, “Because 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, what’s just a projection or fantasy. So the bodhisattva training is very, 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.

But even if we become a Buddha, we’re still not able to just with a snap of our fingers omnipotently eliminate everybody’s suffering. If that were possible, the Buddhas 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 and we can’t force anything. As we saw, the deepest cause of everybody’s suffering is the same, this unawareness. So as a Buddha what we can do is explain in as skillful way as possible – according to the level of the person – reality and so on. But a Buddha can’t understand for somebody else; they have to understand themselves.

You have been talking about preparing ourselves or preparing our future rebirths and working for them, but it sounds like it would be then very easy to get more human rebirths or precious human rebirths. I remember having heard that this 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. So we have to put in very strongly and build up very strongly the causes for it now. So, what are the causes, 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, “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, “May I achieve enlightenment through this. Well, as part of achieving enlightenment it would also be achieving a precious human rebirth that’s going to allow me to reach that enlightenment. May I always have a precious human rebirth, always meeting the Dharma, always be cared for by really well-qualified teachers in all my lifetimes.” Specific prayers, that’s important.

So as I say, it has to be specific. In Ganden Monastery there was the throne, a very high seat of the head of the Gelugpa order, the Ganden throne, and one day – there are animals in the monastery as well – and a cow walked into the temple and sat on the throne – lied down, cows don’t sit. The monks were very surprised at this, and so they asked a very great teacher there, “What is the cause for this?” And 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.”

So 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.