The Dalai Lama's Advice on Teaching Lam-rim

Lam-rim and the Four Noble Truths

Dr. Berzin: What is the best way to teach lam-rim in Eastern Europe? Your Holiness had suggested in the Lama Chopa (Bla-ma mchod-pa, An Offering Ceremony to the Spiritual Masters, The Guru Puja) discourse to start with the four noble truths and the intermediate scope. Could you elaborate on this? Also, what is your advice concerning so-called “guru-devotion” and the preliminary practices. People in communist countries cannot display pictures of Buddhas or arrange water bowls on an altar, since it looks very suspicious.

I think not only in communist countries but in other places as well, it is best to start with the four noble truths.

Basically, we can understand the four noble truths at two levels [the level of temporary liberation from suffering and the level of actual liberation from suffering. Aiming for temporary liberation corresponds to the initial level of lam-rim motivation. Aiming for an actual liberation – either liberation from samsara or the full attainment of enlightenment – corresponds to the intermediate and advanced levels of motivation.]

Aiming for Temporary Liberation

On the first level:

  1. From accumulating karma from attachment and anger, we build up non-meritorious karma. This causes rebirth in the various worse states. The suffering of the three worse states [of trapped beings in the joyless realms (hells), clutching ghosts (hungry ghosts), and animals] is the discussion of true problems here.
  2. The cause of that is destructive behavior, based on unawareness (ignorance) of behavioral cause and effect (karma). Explain that as true causes of suffering.
  3. The preliminary step for liberating ourselves from the worse rebirth states is the wish for liberation from that suffering. Explain that type of liberation as a true stopping (true cessation).
  4. What accomplishes this is the ethical self-discipline of restraining from the ten destructive (nonvirtuous) actions. Explain this as true paths. This covers all four.

In other words, first give the structure of the four noble truths themselves. Then, within that fourfold structure, on the first level corresponding to the lam-rim initial scope of motivation, in the first category we can assert worse rebirths as the basis. Thus, for the noble truth of suffering explain the suffering of the worse states. Then take the attainment of the actual happiness and pleasure of the better rebirth states as examples of a type of liberation. This can be asserted as a liberation, the actualization of a liberation from that suffering, can’t it? It is like a temporary liberation. Then, leading to the path for bringing liberation from the causes for this suffering namely, negative actions, two of the laws concerning cause and effect are relevant regarding the suffering of pain. Regarding the causes of the suffering of pain in the worse rebirth states, from a small cause can come a big result and, if we commit an action, it will not be in vain with no result. Destructive behavior will eventually lead to experiencing suffering, unless we purify ourselves of its karmic aftermaths. This leads to the purifying side of the four noble truths, the separation from that suffering of pain and its causes, and the path for achieving that. In this way, we get the four noble truths, don’t we? The main thing to emphasize when teaching lam-rim, then, is the four noble truths and the wish for liberation.

Then, on top of that, comes refuge. That is the best, isn’t it? Otherwise, if we don’t recognize the point of Dharma in terms of the four noble truths, then what could we explain as being the great importance of the fully endowed human rebirth? Without the context of the four noble truths, if we think about our precious human rebirth, we would only conclude that the human body is important, and that is no big deal.

The Sakya tradition of lamdre (lam-’bras, the path and its results) is structured like this, with the four noble truths in mind. First, we need to think about suffering, and only then about the fully endowed human rebirth. This, I think is very good. Buddha, after all, first taught the four noble truths. Like this, you can easily fill in the way in which the intermediate and advanced lam-rim levels fit into the structure of the four noble truths for attaining an actual liberation.

[See: Lam-rim Structured According to Four Noble Truths]

Aiming for Actual Liberation

Regarding Your Holiness’s point of also emphasizing the intermediate scope from the beginning, does this refer to placing the emphasis on the disturbing emotions and attitudes and on the explanation of mind?

Yes, this is best. If beforehand, you don’t gain certainty of the fact that liberation is attainable, then the Dharma won’t arise at all. In other words, we need certainty that the disturbing emotions and attitudes (true suffering and true causes) are fleeting, that the mind is by nature pure (natural true stoppings), and that it is therefore possible to remove the disturbing emotions and attitudes forever (attain true stoppings through true paths).

Further, regarding the advanced scope, it would be good to explain a little about love, compassion, and bodhichitta. Whether or not people accept that there are past lives or that there is liberation from uncontrollable rebirth, still in this life it is very important to be a loving person, living in harmony with others.

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

Then, it is good to think about the four immeasurables – the wish that all sentient beings be free from suffering, endowed with happiness, free from the causes of suffering, and not to be parted from happiness. Next, explain about equalizing and exchanging attitudes about self and others. In other words, self-cherishing is the door to all problems, cherishing others is the basis for all good qualities, and, when we gain realization of those two points, using ourselves to benefit society.

[See: Equalizing and Exchanging Self with Others]

The Place of “Guru-Devotion” in Lam-rim

Is there any need to mention guru-devotion? They have no gurus.

When we take refuge, the actual refuge is the precious gem of the Dharma – true stoppings and true paths. To have the Dharma Gem on our own mental continuums, we need the methods for generating it there and we need someone to indicate through explanations and personal example what the actual situation of the Dharma Gem is. We also need friends, the Sangha, namely those who are in the process of actualizing the Dharma Gem properly and have already achieved some level of success.

[See: Identifying the Three Precious Gems]

That being so, then when we ask, who is the indicator of the Dharma except for the teacher, we see that the Tibetan word for indicator tenpa (bstan-pa) is also the word for teacher. Without a teacher to indicate the Dharma, we would not be able to practice. Like this, we arrive at the guru.

It is not necessary, and there is no point, to have to talk about the guru and the manner of relating to one as explained in our traditional lam-rims. Just leave it on a simple level. Because the person who teaches us is important, the texts discuss such a person’s qualifications. Then, it is all right to explain the qualities of a spiritual teacher according to the different levels of teacher, as explained in the vinaya, the Mahayana sutras, and so on.

When I was in Eastern Europe last time, I did explain about the precious human life. I found that many people living in these countries felt sorry for themselves, that under the communist system they were unable to do anything ultimately meaningful or make anything out of their lives. They seemed to appreciate the teachings on the precious human life very much.

Very good. That is the right approach.