Taking the Path Seriously

Is Ordinary Life Satisfying?

What is most important in following the lam-rim graded path is to take it very seriously. To take something seriously doesn’t mean to be grim and not be happy about it or not to joke about it sometimes in the process of studying. It doesn’t mean that. Rather what it means is, if we’re to going to follow this spiritual path, having great respect not only for the path and those who have achieved it, but also for ourselves.

Also, not taking it lightly but thinking, “If I’m going to work on myself and follow this path, I want to do it correctly and in the best way possible.” This is based on really understanding the importance of it, and that the importance is not just based on “holy, holy lama” or “sacred, sacred” or something like that. 

This is not an exercise purely in devotion. Rather, we look at our lives and at the lives of all the people around us, everybody that we know, and even the people that we don’t know, the poor people we see in the streets and the street dogs. We think of the people that just work and work and work and just hit more and more problems and eventually die. Everybody that we know, when we get to know them better, we see that no matter how rich they might be or, on the surface, how superficially happy they seem all the time, everybody has their own brand of samsara, their own suffering. The problems are different, but there are some standard problems – the aches and pains as we get older and all these sorts of things. All of that is terrible.

Is this all that there is to life? If that’s all that life is about, that’s really awful, isn’t it? However, if it were possible to actually do something about that, if it were really possible to get out of this state of existence, that would be really wonderful. Furthermore, if everybody could get out of it, that would be even more wonderful. We need to find out, is there a way to get out of it? Not just to be satisfied, to be in a flock of sheep where eventually our turn will come to be slaughtered. We need to think, is there a way out, and if there is, is it really possible?

First, we take the situation seriously: this is what we see, this is what’s going on, “Do I want to just go on with this, or do I want to try to get out of it?” This is the first of the three paths that we’re talking about, renunciation. However, when we talk about a path, what does that mean? We’re not talking about stones on a road that we’re walking on, but a state of mind and a way of communicating and acting that follows from that state of mind that will act as a pathway to reach a goal. Here, our first goal is to get out of all of this.

As I say, we need to take that seriously, “If I can do this and go in this direction, that gives meaning to my life. I’m doing something with my life, not just walking and walking around in a circle waiting until I die, just trying to have little happy experiences and stuff like that, which at first are nice, but not really satisfying.” If they were satisfying, we wouldn’t need to repeat them over and over again. Also, whatever joy we have, wears off; we have no certainty of what we’re going to feel like next, or what’s coming next. That’s not very satisfactory; it’s not very secure.

All the toys that we’ve collected in our lifetime and material things and so on, what are they going to do at the moment of death? Not very much. Money, after all, is just pieces of paper with numbers written on them. We see this with many people that after they die, all their prized possessions instantly become garbage and are thrown away. What was the point? Sure, it was nice, but is that all that life is about? Of course, we need a nice environment and a conducive situation, but when we’ve satisfied the basic needs, we don’t need more. As the Tibetans say, we can only fill our stomach to its fullest; there is a limit to how much we can throw into ourselves.

Developing the Three Pathway Minds

To really put our full energy into following this path, we need to take it seriously. The preparation, of course, is very important so that we have a proper state of mind to be able to actually work to develop these three pathway minds of lam-rim, the graded stages to enlightenment. Even more basic than the preparation is what we do at the very beginning, which is set the motivation. Within the state of mind of that motivation, there’s the motivating feeling or emotion, and there’s the motivating aim. However, what is so important to be able to take the whole thing seriously is to have the conviction that it’s possible to achieve that aim.

Of course, we have to understand what that aim is – not just a nice word like “enlightenment,” and having no clear idea of what in the world that means. If we have a clear understanding of what enlightenment is, then we can develop this second pathway mind, which is bodhichitta; it’s aimed at achieving that. 

For instance, if we want to go on a journey and don’t have a clear idea of where it is we’re going, then our chances of actually getting there are very slim, aren’t they? We may not even be going in the right direction on the road. To aim for that goal, we need to really, really understand not only what the goal is, but understand and be convinced that it’s possible to reach it; otherwise, why make the journey? Furthermore, we need to be convinced not only that it’s theoretically possible to achieve that goal, but that we are personally capable of reaching that goal. Although many of us get involved in Buddhism and the Buddhist practice, we haven’t really looked very deeply into thinking, “Do I really think it’s possible to achieve enlightenment? Because if it’s not possible, what in the world am I doing here? Why am I sitting down to try to meditate and torturing my knees?”

In order to be convinced that it’s possible to achieve enlightenment, then we need this third pathway of mind, the understanding of voidness or reality. When we talk about these three principal pathways of the mind – sure, there’s a graded order in which we develop them – first renunciation, then bodhichitta, then the understanding of voidness. Particularly if we’re going to write a text and lead people along a path of development, we can only speak about and practice one at a time. Nevertheless, once we get a general idea of these three, we need to put them together and go back to the very beginning, and from every tiny step onwards, try to apply all three.

We start with reaffirming our motivation, which, as I said, involves a motivating aim and a motivating emotion driving us to achieve this aim. All three principal pathways of mind are relevant here. We need to renounce the suffering situation that we and everybody else are in, which means that we think, “I’m willing to give it up because it’s not only disgusting and terrible, but it’s also really boring.” It’s just walking around and around in a circle. We head to one problem after another, one unhealthy relationship after another, one episode of getting angry after another. It just goes on and on and repeats and repeats. How utterly boring!

When we’re going to turn away from that and we’re willing to give it up, and we’re determined to be free of it, that’s renunciation. Then we turn to looking at, “What do I want to achieve? What’s the aim? What’s the goal?” It’s not just to get out of it. The aim really is to reach enlightenment to help everybody else get out of it; that’s bodhichitta. 

To aim for it, we have to be convinced that it’s possible to actually achieve it. For that, we need the understanding of voidness, that all these fantasies and projections and things that are causing all of our problems – none of them correspond to anything real. For instance, the fantasy that “somewhere there’s a Prince or Princess Charming on a white horse and they’re going to be an absolutely perfect partner for me. They’re going to complement me in every way, and the only thing they’re interested in life is me; me and complementing me and giving me every moment of their time and attention. They are absolutely perfect.”

Either we haven’t found somebody, so we’re constantly trying to find somebody like that, or even if we’ve found a partner, we’re always expecting them to be like that, and we get really annoyed when they’re not acting like that. This is a fantasy. It does not correspond to anything real. This is no different than believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. This is a nice fairy tale for children, but sorry, there’s no such thing.

However, we believe that there is such a person because of our unawareness, our ignorance – we just don’t know that such a person doesn’t exist. Because such a person does not correspond to anything real, there’s no basis for our belief that there is. It doesn’t hold up; it doesn’t stand up to any investigation, so our confused belief is something that can be eliminated. 

Well, that’s a very superficial way of looking at the issue of voidness; nevertheless, it’s a good way to start. We need to start somewhere, so with this much understanding, we can start to think, “Well, maybe it’s possible to get rid of my confusion that is causing all my problems. I may not understand on a very deep level how that affects continuing from one lifetime to another lifetime and going around in a circle like this... but wait a moment, do I really believe in rebirth?”

This is not an easy issue. When we talk about our motivating aim at just this initial step of reaffirming our motivation, and try to apply these three principal pathways even just here, how seriously do we take the presentation of these motivating aims? What are we renouncing? It’s not just the problems of this lifetime. Tsongkhapa makes it quite clear that the first stage of renunciation is meditating for a better rebirth. “But hey, I don’t believe in rebirth. I don’t understand it, so what do I do now?”

Then, we go a step further in the lam-rim texts, and they say that we need to aim for ridding ourselves of uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether. But then we think, “Well, how can I aim for that if I’m very unsure about this whole issue of rebirth?”

We go a little bit further, and we want to help everybody else get out of uncontrollably recurring rebirth – that’s why we want to achieve enlightenment, right? So, “What am I aiming for?” Wouldn’t it be a bit nicer to just say, “I just want to get rid of all my psychological and emotional problems in this lifetime and be able to really help everybody now? Can’t we just do that without this rebirth business here? Because I’m really not sure about that. I don’t feel comfortable with that. OK, renunciation, bodhichitta, understanding of voidness, let’s apply them within these limitations of just this one lifetime.”

If we examine ourselves honestly, even if we’re convinced that we can actually achieve such a goal in this lifetime, are we comfortable with that? If everybody is talking about rebirth here in the standard texts, is it really appropriate to just say, “Well, I don’t like that piece, so let’s throw that away? If I can throw out that piece because I don’t particularly like it, what about some of the other pieces?” Do we throw them away as well? What conclusion are we drawn to here?

The conclusion is that if we take this whole thing and ourselves seriously, then we have to take what Buddha said seriously. He was talking about rebirth; in fact, it seems to appear almost everywhere in the teachings, so we have to think, “Maybe that’s something that I should try to understand. Maybe it’s important.” This, I think, is a very major step, an important step that we need to make, because there are many things in the teachings that don’t sit very well in our Western mentality. These are things that we need to decide, and think, “Well, I have to examine and really try to understand what in the world is going on here and not just accept a superficial level of it.”

Dharma-Lite Versus the Real Thing Dharma

On my website, I have an article that speaks in various places about Dharma-Lite versus the Real Thing Dharma, like Coca-Cola Light and the Real Thing Coca-Cola. 

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

Dharma-Lite is when we have this idea, “Let’s leave out rebirth and all this stuff; that isn’t the real thing. Let’s just do Dharma within the context of this lifetime.” Basically, if we’re honest with ourselves, all we really want to do is make our samsara a little bit better. That’s Dharma-Lite. 

Now, there are two versions of Dharma-Lite. One version says, “Rebirth and the other stuff about hells and so on is just superstition for Asian people, and that’s not really good for you. It has caffeine and sugar and stuff like that. Dharma-Lite – that’s the best thing.”

The other version of Dharma-Lite, which I think is much more acceptable, is that we say, “OK, I acknowledge that rebirth and all these issues are very important in the Dharma. I also acknowledge that I really don’t understand it very well, and I realize that, especially concerning rebirth, I’m going to have to understand what it is that takes rebirth and the teachings about the voidness of the self, and all these other things related to that.” That’s because, “Unless I understand all that, then even if I accept that there is such a thing as rebirth, I won’t come to believe it seriously. So, I really have to understand what in the world they’re talking about in Buddhism when they talk about rebirth. It’s certainly not some soul that flies from one body to another – that’s not at all what they’re talking about. So, I’m going to follow Dharma-Lite as a steppingstone, just one stage along the way. In other words, I take myself seriously and at this stage of my development, the only thing that I can really be sincere about is trying to work within the context of this lifetime; that’s the only thing that really deeply within my heart I can put my energy and feelings into.”

Further, “To say, I’m aiming to gain liberation from rebirth and help everybody get out of rebirth, that’s just words to me now. I don’t and can’t really feel that, so I don’t want to pretend. I really don’t even understand it, so at this stage, I’m going to work within the context of what I can handle emotionally and intellectually because I want to be sincere about what I’m doing. I take this whole thing seriously, but I fully acknowledge that this is just a stage; this isn’t the final way of practicing.”

Then, “I’m really going to try to understand some of these more difficult aspects, starting with rebirth, because that really is very, very central – the precious human life, beginningless lives, and the fact that we’re going to die and then we’re reborn – it’s absolutely everywhere in the teachings. In the context of beginningless lives, the fact that this is a rare opportunity that we have now with a precious human life, it doesn’t make any sense without rebirth; that’s all based on rebirth. I’m really going to try to understand it.”

“Even if I’ve gone through studying these three principal paths, I need to go back and deal with these major issues, like rebirth, because really, how much have I understood? I really do take it seriously that it will be a graded spiritual path. I’m looking ahead at the next steps that I want to take and that I need to take. Like that, I’m practicing Dharma-Lite now because this is what I can handle now, and I’m looking ahead at the rest.” That’s perfectly fine. With that attitude, Dharma-Lite is appropriate; it’s the appropriate drink.

This is what I wanted to discuss this evening in our first meeting. Because, as I said, that sets the tone of thinking, “OK, this is the level that I’m at. Either I’m a newcomer, or I’ve studied for a while, and I take it seriously, and this is the context that I see where I’m at now and what I’m doing.” Because if we’re going to try to apply all of this stuff to our daily lives, we have to be sincere about it. It has to be something that we really feel and feel on a stable basis.

It’s not based on pretending to be so wonderful and so high and boasting, “I’m working to liberate all sentient beings.” We check, “Am I really working to free every cockroach in the universe from uncontrollably recurring rebirth? Is that really what I sincerely feel from the depth of my heart?” We start to question that idea that we are truly motivated by being convinced that every cockroach has been our mother in a previous lifetime. Really, how sincere are we about that? Do we want to free them all because they’ve all been our mothers in previous lives?

If we realize the full context of what we’re doing and are sincere and honest about asking ourselves, “What level am I on now?” then – as we apply all of this in our daily lives – it starts to have some result; it has some effect. It’s very important to be realistic about it. One of the most general characteristics of samsara is that it goes up and down, and this is going to continue until we become liberated as an arhat, which is a long time from now. Sometimes we’re going to feel like practicing, and sometimes we’re not. Sometimes it’s going to go well, sometimes not so well. What do we expect from samsara?

It’s not that we do the practice, and with every mantra we say, samsara gets better and better and better. No way is that going to happen in a linear fashion. If we are realistic about that, then even when things are not going well, which we should expect is going to happen, we just continue. It doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. We should think, “I just want to sustain my effort,” then that’s far more stable. We can only do that on the basis of being really sincere and honest about where we’re at.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, don’t judge your progress based on just a short-term period, but look over several years of time. If the general trend of the way we were, say three or five years ago, and the way we are now has improved, even though day-to-day it might go up and down, then we know that something has been effective. Don’t ever expect miracles.

Maybe we have a little time for a few questions.


I’m a newcomer, but I want to ask you what you meant when you said, “Don’t expect miracles?”

A miracle would be where we say the magic words, the magic mantra, or the magic practice, and then, all of a sudden, all our problems are gone. We would be able to actually get rid of all our recurring problems and so on without putting in a great deal of work and effort, and it would be easy. Or believing that some outside force is going to save us, and we don’t have to do anything ourselves. Those are miracles. Generally, they don’t happen. That’s something very central in Buddhism: things don’t happen without a cause.

At the time of the Buddha, were there all these teachings and aspects of the path to enlightenment that helped him with his own enlightenment?

That’s a difficult question to answer in a way that we can easily chew on and digest. I can give you the answer, but the answer might not be very satisfactory for you. Buddhism speaks in terms of mental continuums that have no beginning. To understand that, we have to get into the whole discussion of cause and effect. Then, how can continuities have an absolute beginning? Furthermore, continuities that change from moment to moment can’t just start from nothing or have an absolute beginning. Because if we say that someone created it, some greater power created it, well, did that great power have a beginning? Or if there’s no beginning to that great power, we’re still left with no beginning. Or with the idea that there was nothing before, did that nothing have a beginning? No, it was always there. No matter which way we try to solve the puzzle, there’s no way around having to ultimately face the issue of no beginning. From that point of view, there was no first Buddha, and because of that, the teachings and the method were always available.

As I said, that’s not a very easy answer to understand or accept, but that’s the question. It wasn’t that Buddha went to some other Buddha who was around at the time and learned it. Buddha had teachers, of course, but primarily, the teachers that he studied with, he decided that what they were teaching wasn’t deep enough, so he sat down and figured it out himself. Well, did he just make it all up? That is not a satisfactory answer from a Buddhist point of view, although we could look at it that way as Westerners and say, “He figured it out. He was a genius.”

From the Buddhist point of view, we would say, “Well, in previous lives, Buddha had studied these things with teachers who were around at that time. These ideas, this understanding came to him based on a cause – that he had studied these things before – and now it finally made sense to him.”

When we start to look at it any question in Buddhism, we can find superficial answers. But then, when we start to investigate deeper and deeper, everything starts to get more and more profound. Were there always electric light bulbs? Did the person who invented the electric light bulb learn how to do it in some previous life? Is this what we’re talking about?

We investigate. We don’t just accept some explanation. We try to see, “Well, does it make sense?” As I said, this question can lead one deeper and deeper and deeper into the whole question of knowledge and how we know anything. Does it come from a cause or not? That’s the basic question.

I’m answering this way on purpose because what I want to demonstrate is that we ask a question and we get an answer, and the answer might sound very simple, “Oh yeah, Buddha figured it out. He was smart, and he worked really hard and figured it out.” However, we’re never satisfied with these types of answers. It’s the same thing as Dharma-Lite, where we think, “OK, well, I can deal with this part now; I can accept that answer. Fine, I’m happy with that.” Be aware that there are much deeper explanations that are far, far more complex, and involve many, many more issues with any point.

However, we should think, “When I reach another level of understanding, I can ask that question again and look at it on a deeper level.” That’s the point I want to make. A very important thing in the Dharma is to never be satisfied with our level of understanding until we’ve reached a super, super level of realization. We can always understand it on a deeper level. There is always another deeper level. If we look at the greatest Buddhist teachers among the Tibetans – and they could already be very old – they’re still going to teachings with even greater masters. They’re still learning more, still working to make progress, to go deeper.

Just one last word, one last example. Trijang Rinpoche, the late Junior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, often said when he was an old man, regarding Tsongkhapa’s Grand Presentation of the Graded Path to Enlightenment, “I’ve read the book hundreds of times and every time I read it, I get a deeper understanding of it.” He read it several hundred times in his lifetime, that’s the way to study the Dharma.