Developing Interest in Liberation and Enlightenment

Brief Review

We started our explanation of Atisha’s text, and we saw that he was speaking about the stages by which we develop or progress along the spiritual path. We saw that one way of describing how we progress is that the scope or aim of our goal gets progressively greater. This is described in terms of the three spiritual scopes or persons of three spiritual scopes. We spoke about the initial scope yesterday. 

This word that Atisha uses for the three types of spiritual “persons” is quite interesting. It’s the word purusha in Sanskrit. Purusha is actually a technical term that appears in Hindu philosophy, and it makes me wonder whether or not there’s a certain connotation to it arising from that. We have two categories in the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy: there’s something called matter, primal matter, and then purusha is opposed to that. Purusha is speaking more about the mind that goes on from lifetime to lifetime, and so more like the “person” in terms of what goes on from lifetime to lifetime. That’s why I think that Atisha’s not talking about individual people, but he’s talking about our state of mind as it progresses from lifetime to lifetime and as it progresses to enlightenment. 

The initial scope is to be interested in gaining the happiness of samsara with rebirth, and this is mostly about continuing to have a precious human life in future lives as well, not only in this life, so that we can continue on the path all the way up to liberation and enlightenment. Because the odds are that we’re not going to reach liberation or enlightenment in this lifetime, we need to be able to continue in future lives as well. 

That’s why, when we think in terms of following the entire path, even when we are on a Mahayana level or a tantra Mahayana level, still this initial scope is absolutely essential as a foundation. This is because we are going to need to have a precious human life, the ability to continue our practice in the future as well. If we don’t take measures now to ensure our future lives, we’re going to be in big trouble when we die. Because at the time of our death, if we haven’t reached liberation or enlightenment, which is most likely going to be the case, then we could feel, “Oh, this was all a big waste.” 

However, if we’ve made provisions for having continued conducive circumstances in the future and for them being even better circumstances, then we can feel, “In this lifetime I’ve taken a few steps in that direction; very good,” and “I’ll be able to continue,” and die with great peace of mind. It’s important not to look at this initial scope as just, “I want to be reborn in heaven or a paradise, and everything is going to be so wonderful.” That’s not really the point of this initial scope. 

Intermediate Scope 

(4) Anyone with the nature to turn his or her back on the pleasures of compulsive existence and to turn back negative impulses of karma, and who takes keen interest in merely his or her own state of peace, is known as a person of intermediate spiritual scope. 

Turning One’s Back on the Pleasures of Compulsive Existence

The main point of the intermediate scope is that we want to get free completely from samsara, which means uncontrollably recurring rebirth, because we are just completely fed up with the whole cycle that repeats over and over again – all the problems of growing up, making a living, having to work very hard, and then having sickness, old age and death; it just repeats over and over and over again, and that really is very tiresome. But not just that, we also understand what is causing that uncontrollably recurring cycle, how to stop it and are convinced that it is possible for us to do that.

If we look more closely, what is always going on with samsara is that it’s going up and down. It’s not only going up and down in terms of different rebirths that we have, but from moment to moment, it’s going up and down: sometimes we feel happy, then the next minute, we feel unhappy. Our moods go up and down, and our emotional states go up and down; we never know what’s coming next, which is what’s so horrible about it. 

Now that point, that samsara goes up and down, is a very important point to remember while we’re following the spiritual path, because that pattern is going to continue until we gain liberation; that is, until we’re a completely liberated being, an arhat. That means that even when we’re a very, very advanced practitioner, but haven’t reached liberation yet, our experience is going to continue to go up and down. Sometimes we’re going to feel like practicing, and sometimes we’re not going to feel like practicing. That is natural; that’s one of the characteristic features of samsara. Sometimes things will go well, and sometimes they won’t; we’ll get sick or get hurt and so on. It’s natural and nothing surprising. 

If we understand that, then we’re not discouraged when things go up and down, but we have this perseverance to just continue. It’s called “perseverance which is like a suit of armor;”  that’s not going to be discouraged when things go up and down, but just to continue. 

However, at this stage of this intermediate scope, we say, “I really have had enough of this. I am not only completely tired of and disgusted with it, I’m also bored with it. It’s really boring and I really want to get out.” It’s when we get bored with samsara that we really start to do something about it. Then, we develop what’s called “renunciation of samsara.” This is a special word that we need to understand well. “Renunciation” − the Tibetan word for it means “to become firm.” It’s a determination, and what we become determined about is to turn away from samsara and all its unsatisfactory, unsatisfying features; we become determined to get free of it, knowing how to do that and that it is possible to get free.

That means we become determined to give up certain things. What we’re giving up, or ridding ourselves of, are various problems that we have and the causes of these problems. Problems are what we want to get rid of, so we want to give them up and get out of samsara. We’re not talking about giving up neutral things like ice cream and so on; it’s not talking about that. We’re talking about certain states of mind and the experiences that they lead to, which basically are disturbing and cause a lot of problems. We think, “I’m really determined that I don’t want to continue that. I want to stop and get out of that.” That means giving them up. 

It’s relatively easy to give up watching television or ice cream; these are fairly trivial things, in a sense. What we’re talking about here is giving up greed, giving up attachment, giving up anger. We can’t just say, “Well, I give up being attached,” or “I stop being angry.” We have to really work very hard to rid ourselves of these disturbing states of mind. It’s not just a matter of discipline, “Well, I’m going to stop.” It means working to progress very, very deeply to rid ourselves of these problems and their causes. 

“What is really the cause of my greed, my attachment, my anger?” Go deeper. “Well, it’s insecurity.” “What’s the cause of insecurity? I want to give that up, I want to stop being insecure, which means I need to rid myself of what’s causing it.” Go as deeply as possible. That’s what is usually called “to abandon” these things, but that’s not quite the right word; it means to rid ourselves of them, to get rid of them. When our minds are completely firm, not wavering, but completely firm: “I’m determined to do this and I can do this, because I know how,” that’s the meaning of renunciation. 

As we saw with safe direction or refuge, it’s a very important part of this determination here, this renunciation, that we are convinced that it’s possible to get rid of these things and that we ourselves are capable of it. It’s not just a nice dream that we don’t think is possible to actually fulfill. That’s why, for all of this, it’s very important to have a clear understanding of the nature of the mind, the mental continuum; that it’s not by nature stained by these things, that it’s actually possible to eliminate all the confusion and so on that’s causing the problems. That’s very essential; otherwise, all of Buddhism just is a nice dream, a nice wish, but without any conviction that it’s possible to achieve its goals. 

How does Atisha describe this intermediate scope? Atisha says that this is somebody that “turns their back on the pleasures of compulsive existence.” This means our ordinary type of happiness. To turn our back on that doesn’t mean that “I’m never going to eat anything nice,” or “I’m only going to go around wearing clothes made out of coarse hair and walk barefooted and beat myself and stuff like that because I don’t want to ever have any worldly pleasures.” It certainly doesn’t mean that. 

Rather, it means thinking, “Our worldly happiness, that’s not my ultimate goal,” because this type of worldly happiness has a lot of problems associated with it, it doesn’t last, we never know when it’s going to end, and we never know what we’re going to feel like afterward. “I feel happy now, but in two minutes from now, I could feel quite miserable. I’m having a nice time with you, but one minute from now I might get bored, or you might say something that I don’t like, and then I’m not happy anymore.” There’s no guarantee of what’s coming next. 

There’s no security with our ordinary type of happiness; that is what is unsatisfactory about it. It is never going to eliminate our unhappiness completely; it’s not enough. This is why we turn our back on that ordinary happiness, thinking, “This is not the ultimate goal that I’m looking for. If I have that worldly happiness, of course, that can be a circumstance that’s conducive for practicing. If I’m not in complete pain all the time, then obviously, I can help others more. It’s a circumstance conducive for practicing and helping – it’s having very good health, and so on.” We use this worldly happiness when we have it, but we’re not surprised when it ends. 

Because, of course, it’s going to end. It’s the nature of samsara; it goes up and down. When we feel unhappy, as well, it’s not something that is going to make us stop practicing, because when we are having suffering, that can also be a helpful circumstance for appreciating and developing compassion for other people who suffer. 

That’s one feature of this intermediate scope, to “turn your back on the pleasures of compulsive existence,” for example, “This is not what I want as my ultimate aim.” 

Turning Back Negative Impulses

The next feature is somebody who “turns back negative impulses.” The verb here is a different verb from what we have in the first part of this verse. 

In the initial scope, we had the intention that when the impulses of karma to act destructively come up, we’re going to restrain ourselves from acting them out. That was the initial scope: “I have the impulse to say something cruel to you, but I realize that that’s going to hurt your feelings and it’s going to build up negative habits in myself, and so I refrain from saying it.” Here, in the intermediate scope, we’re not just talking about not acting out negative impulses. We’re talking about turning them back, which means to eliminate the causes for these impulses to arise. We want to examine really as deeply as possible and discover the causes for these negative impulses. 

We discover that they’re caused by our confusion about reality – it’s usually called “unawareness” or “ignorance.” This unawareness of how we exist and how everybody exists is discussed more fully later on in the text. If we describe it very simply, it’s basically a feeling that, “I’m a solid me that is separate from everything that’s happening, and I have to always get my way.” We’re preoccupied with this seemingly solid me, thinking, “I’m the most important one in the world and anything that I don’t like, I have to destroy with anger, and anything that I like, with greed − I have to get it. If I have it, I have attachment − I don’t want to let go.” 

That causes us to act in compulsive, destructive ways. It even causes us to act compulsively in constructive ways, “I’m compulsively trying to please you because I want you to love me. I’m so preoccupied with me that I think that everybody in the universe has to pay attention to me, but I’m going to be nice to you so that you will pay attention to me and love me.” That grasping for this solid me is what causes us to build up karma potential for problems by acting either destructively or constructively, but in a compulsive type of way, in order to gratify this me

This grasping for a solid me, this confusion, is also what causes the potentials of karma to ripen so that we experience the results of these things in terms of getting happy or unhappy, and then we continue in our old ways. Here on the intermediate scope, we want to turn that back. We want to get rid of these negative impulses so that they don’t arise, which means we want to rid ourselves of the causes of that, our confusion about how we exist. We renounce that, that confusion. 

Taking Keen Interest in Merely One’s Own State of Peace

The third characteristic is that they “take keen interest in merely their own state of peace,” “I want myself to get out of this.” We’re not really talking here about Theravada Buddhism, but this is the level of motivation that is “in common with Hinayana,” this is the way that it’s described from the Mahayana point of view. However, we have to remember that it was the Mahayanists who made up the word “Hinayana.” It appears first in the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. It didn’t appear before. 

Mahayana means “large vehicle,” “the great vehicle,” and Hinayana means “small vehicle,” so one could look at it as a derogatory term, Mahayana looking down on Hinayana, “We are so great and you’re so small.” I think that we need to look at the word yana (vehicle) more in terms of Atisha’s presentation of the three scopes. It is a vehicle of mind that brings us to a goal, that’s what it means, and, as in our discussion of these scopes, that vehicle of mind, as one who progresses along the spiritual path, becomes wider and wider, greater and greater in the scope of its aim. 

These terms Hinayana and Mahayana are referring to levels of our own development as our spiritual scope broadens, and I don’t think that it’s really fair to apply that term, “Hinayana,” to talking about certain historical schools of Buddhism. I don’t think that that really is the most mature way of looking at the meaning of these terms. It better applies to a vehicle of mind with a modest scope. The problem is that there are 18 schools of Buddhism that developed, of which Theravada is one, and Mahayana is often contrasted with these 18 schools, and the problem is that there’s no term for all 18 of these. So “Hinayana” is used as the term to refer to all of these schools. 

In the context of Mahayana, and particularly the lam-rim, it’s important to not really identify this Hinayana level of motivation with these 18 historical schools, because certainly in these schools one has the practice of love and compassion and so on. We would get the impression here that on the intermediate scope, somebody is just totally selfish and only concerned with themselves. In the intermediate scope, teachings on love and compassion are never included, although certainly in Theravada, we have these teachings and practices. 

It is true that no matter how much love and compassion we have for others and no matter how much we try to help them, ultimately, everybody has to understand reality for themselves and has to rid themselves of the causes of their problems. Nobody can do that for anybody else. It is very important to really work on getting rid of our own confusion, the source of our own problems. That’s very important and absolutely essential if we’re going to try to help others. Because if we just instantly from the beginning try to follow the Mahayana path, this advanced scope, then although we might try to help other people, if we’re not working also to rid ourselves of our own confusion, then helping others could become a big ego trip. We become very attached to people that we’re trying to help, and if they don’t take our advice or they don’t get better, we get angry with them. If it does work, we want them to like and love us and thank us and all of this; it’s a big ego trip. 

This is going to make a big obstacle in really being able to help others. Thus, we have to work on ourselves emotionally, not just work on our emotions in terms of developing love and compassion, but work on ourselves to also get rid of attachment, anger, impatience, these sort of things. The intermediate scope is very necessary as a stage on the way to developing a stable Mahayana level of practice. 

Bodhichitta as the Entranceway for the Advanced Scope 

(5) Anyone who fully wishes to eliminate completely all the sufferings of others as (he or she would) the sufferings included in his or her own mental continuum is someone of supreme motivation. 

On the intermediate scope, we want to eliminate all the sufferings that are included or experienced on our own mental continuum, which means to get rid of the causes of suffering as well. On the advanced scope, we would “wish to eliminate completely...” – completely means from the root, the causes and so on, “...all the sufferings of others,” the same as our own sufferings. 

In other words, we take them on, the same as our own sufferings, and we would want to eliminate them in the same ways we would want to eliminate our own sufferings and their causes. We appreciate that we’re all the same in that everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, and we are all the same in our experience of the problems of samsara – things going up and down, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and so on. As Shantideva says, suffering needs to be removed not because it’s my suffering or because it’s your suffering. Suffering needs to be removed simply because it’s suffering and it hurts. Suffering has no owner. 

It’s like if we live in an apartment building and we go out into the hall downstairs, and there’s some paper or garbage on the floor, that paper or garbage is to be picked up and thrown away, not because I dropped it, not because you dropped it, but because it’s there on the floor and it needs to be cleaned up. That’s the way of thinking. We just pick up the paper and throw it away. There’s no big deal about that. It’s not that, “Oh, these terrible neighbors who are always dropping paper on the floor,” which is really thinking of me as being so holy and wonderful compared to them, and it’s not, “Oh, I always have to clean up after everybody,” which is also thinking of me or, “How wonderful I am and such an angel, I’m cleaning up.” Nothing like that. It’s just there. It’s on the floor, so naturally, we pick it up because it needs to be cleaned up. Everybody enjoys a clean hall. 

It’s the same thing in terms of helping others to eliminate their problems. If somebody doesn’t understand something, or we don’t understand something, we explain; it doesn’t matter who the person is, we explain. If somebody needs help, we help if it’s possible. This type of scope is when we are thinking in terms of helping everybody, not just a few people, not just the people that we like − we would like to be able to eliminate everybody’s sufferings, everybody’s problems, the same as we would ourselves. This is a huge scope. “And I’m not going to give up, but I’m going to continue trying to help everybody, so that everybody becomes free of all their problems,” and so on. 

That means that with this advanced or supreme scope, we develop what’s called “bodhichitta” based on love and compassion. Love is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes of happiness; compassion is the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. Then, there’s the exceptional resolve, which is “I’m going to take responsibility to actually help them to achieve this,” and realizing that the only way that we’re going to fully be able to help others as much as possible is to become enlightened, not just gain liberation. This is because if we are merely liberated from our problems and their causes, our minds are still limited. 

We are a little bit like submarines under the water, looking out through a periscope. Even as liberated beings, we’re still only able to perceive what’s in front of the periscope, what’s in front of our eyes. Even though we don’t have any problems with what we perceive, still we can’t see what’s behind us. We can’t see the future effects of our behavior, and we can’t see everything that’s come before that’s affected what’s happening now. Although we may be able to perceive more than ordinary people because we’re more highly developed, liberated and so on, we’re still viewing people in the universe through a periscope. It may be a very large one, but it’s still a periscope. 

What we want to do is think, “I’ve got to become enlightened. I’ve got to become a Buddha to get rid of this periscope vision to be able to perceive everything about everybody. I want to get rid of not just the obscurations of the disturbing emotions, which are preventing liberation, but I want to get rid of the obscurations that prevent me from knowing everything, knowing everything in terms of karma and relations. Also, to know, “if I teach you this, what effect is it going to have on you?” and so on. It’s not only “what effect it is going to have on you?” but “what effect it is going to have on everybody else that you interact with and then everybody else that they interact with... forever.” 

That’s enlightenment, when we get rid of all those obscurations − no periscope whatsoever. Although we want to achieve this state − in that state, we will be able to be of best benefit to everyone − nevertheless, we still realize that we can only help those who are receptive. A Buddha can’t just eliminate everybody’s suffering just by a Buddha’s own power; if that were possible, everybody would be free already. We understand the reality of cause and effect, what we are actually able to do. We have a realistic idea of how we’re going to be able to help others once we’re enlightened. 

When we talk about bodhichitta, the main intention that we start with is, “I have got to be able to help others as much as is possible.” With that motivation, then we look and we see, “Well, to be able to do that I need to become enlightened.” Bodhichitta is a state of mind that is focused on enlightenment; however, it’s not focused on enlightenment in general or the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni. It’s focused on our own enlightenment that we will attain in the future, our own individual, specific enlightenment way further down on our mental continuum. 

This intention, that we’ve got to achieve this as soon as possible because then we’ll really be able to help others as much as possible, has to be coupled with the confidence that “that future attainment is possible for me to attain” – that it is a possible state in the future of our mental continuum, and that it is totally possible for us to attain it. Without that, then it’s just a nice wish, but it’s not practical; it’s not sincere. This is what bodhichitta is; it’s very important to have a clear understanding of it. 

(6) For these hallowed beings who have come to wish for supreme enlightenment, I shall explain the perfect methods that the gurus have shown. 

For somebody who truly has that “wish for supreme enlightenment,” Atisha calls them “hallowed,” sacred, which is really showing them great respect. In other words, somebody who is aiming for their own enlightenment and working as hard as possible to achieve it because they want to be able to help others more; for those, then, “I’ll explain the perfect methods” for achieving that enlightenment the way “that the gurus have shown.” In other words, he is saying, “I’m not just going to make it up. Such people are really worthy of respect.” It’s not just that we show respect to other people who have achieved this, we show respect to ourselves in terms of our own potential to achieve that.

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