As we are here in a special place, Bodh Gaya, we must set a special motivation: the bodhichitta aim to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings. This needs to be completely sincere. Buddha himself attained his enlightenment by the power of his pure bodhichitta aim. All his qualities and attainments were dependent on that enlightening motive. To reach the same attainment, we need to pray to develop such a mind ourselves as much as possible and to have it ever increase.
These last days we have built up some positive force (merit) through these teachings. Let us now continue today with The Three Principal Aspects of the Path by Je Tsongkhapa. The three refer to renunciation, bodhichitta, and a correct view of voidness.
Renunciation is based on the attitude with which we turn our minds completely away from all wishes for samsara, uncontrollably recurring existence. Our attainment of liberation is dependent on having such a renunciation. Bodhichitta is the attitude or intention to attain enlightenment to benefit all limited beings (sentient beings). The correct view of voidness is realization of the actual abiding nature of reality.
Concerning the correct view or understanding of voidness, of reality, of non-inherent existence, if it is held by a mind of renunciation, it brings liberation. It brings liberation by eliminating the obscurations that prevent liberation, namely the disturbing emotions and attitudes, the mental factors that keep us bound in the compulsive existence of samsara. If the understanding of the correct view of voidness is held by a mind of bodhichitta, it eliminates as well the obscurations regarding all knowables, and which prevent omniscience – namely, the habits of grasping for true and inherent existence. Removing them brings the attainment of enlightenment. Therefore, a correct view of voidness is the main opponent that destroys the two sets of obscuration, and it is assisted by either renunciation or by both renunciation and bodhichitta.
The Hinayana teachings entail renunciation and the correct view of voidness in order to reach their goal, liberation. Mahayana adds to them bodhichitta to eliminate all obscuration completely. Thus, the three principal aspects of the path – renunciation, bodhichitta, and voidness – incorporate the essence of all the Hinayana and Mahayana teachings.
Our famous tantras, which have the profound subject of the subtle bodies, energy-winds, energy-channels, and energy-drops, has as its foundation the same three principal aspects of the path – renunciation, an extremely strong bodhichitta aim, and a full understanding of voidness as taught by Nagarjuna and his two spiritual sons. In addition to these, in tantra we set our pride or dignity on the potential of what we can achieve from the subtle winds and consciousness. In this way, we hold the dignity of either a Form Body or a Deep Awareness Dharma Body of a Buddha, or on both of these. Although we do not actually have these Buddha-bodies at the time of practice, yet based on our strong bodhichitta aim to attain this enlightened state to benefit all limited beings, we gradually become able to achieve them. We can achieve them through the practices of maintaining the dignity of these Buddha-bodies.
Thus, the three principal aspects of the path are the basis of the entire sutra and tantra paths. In any case, we must always try to follow a combined practice of method and wisdom, trying to help others, building up positive force, and so forth.
This particular text is quite short, only a few verses. I first studied it with Tagtra Rinpoche and later with many others, including Trijang Dorjechang. We need to set a proper motivation to listen to these teachings. If we set a kind heart as our motivation, this is the source of all happiness. If we lack such a heart, and instead are proud, pretentious, and so on, this only brings unhappiness and uneasiness. The effects in future lives of whether we will be either a cultivated, gentle person or a rough, crude being will be seen in terms of our conduct in this life. Even if we do not accept the existence of future lives, yet having a kind heart, or on the other hand being coarse and crude, will bring either happiness or unhappiness in turn, now.
Being a Kind, Gentle Person
Most important is our daily conduct. Even if there were no such thing as future lives, there is no harm in being gentle; it helps in our daily lives. If there are future lives, then even more so will we benefit from being gentle, kind persons. So be friendly, kind to each other, and not just in theory. We need to do so in terms of actual people and actual situations we encounter in our daily lives. This is the essence of the Dharma and it is not difficult to follow. It is not something we go and buy in a store, but rather it is something that we practice ourselves.
Look at the Chinese, for instance. They are proper objects for our compassion. They do not know what is right or wrong; they do not know the consequences of their acts, so we need to show them compassion. You yourselves, we all need to try to be kind and refined. Look at drinkers of chang (beer), and of alcohol – this is a very bad custom. They become drunk, raucous, crude, rude, and cause much disturbance. Buddha has said that as a consequence of drinking alcohol, we often commit many destructive actions of body, speech, and mind. Therefore, it is not good at all to drink alcohol.
The same is true with smoking. Although Buddha did not specifically proscribe it and Buddha’s teachings do not specifically mention its disadvantages, yet as we see from what Western doctors say, it is extremely dangerous for our health. If there were some particular purpose in smoking, that would be all right. But, if there is none, as is mostly the case, then it is best not to. The same is true with taking snuff, and so on, it is best not to use these things at all.
In such ways, by abandoning these crude types of habits, we will become increasingly more gentle a person, more cultivated and refined a person. The more we can do this, the better. If we see other gentlemen and ladies, we need to rejoice in their examples and try to become as gentle and cultivated as we can ourselves. Do you understand? Be more and more mindful to be gentle, cultivated, loving, and to have a warm heart. Look at the disadvantages of being crude, raucous, selfish, and rough. We need always to remind ourselves of them. If we have a kind heart, this brings happiness, good fortune, health, and peace of mind. This helps me a lot in my own thinking. We are all the same; we all want happiness; so, we all need to do the same: be gentle and kind.
Look at those who are coming here from Tibet. They do not harp on all the difficulties they have had in these last twenty-odd years and say how pathetic we are and feel sorry for themselves. Rather, they come here being very interested in the Dharma. We Tibetans, who, have been living here also need to not harbor grudges against the Chinese. We need to feel how fortunate we are to have had the opportunity to be in India and to practice the Dharma. I know of many who were oppressed by the Chinese, held prisoners and, lacking any Buddhist training, went mad with hatred and anger. So, it is most important not to be angry like that, but to be cultivated and try to nurture a kind heart. It makes a huge difference at the time of our deaths.
Look at Hitler. Although he was so powerful during his life, his hatred overcame him and when he died he was so desperate and unhappy he took poison, and killed himself. Stalin likewise died in a state of great fear and Mao Zedong passed away in very difficult straits. Therefore, it is important to be kind and have a warm heart our entire lives. Then, when we die, we can do so with peace of mind.
In all the countries to which I have been traveling, I teach exactly the same point. Whether I am in the West or even in the Soviet Union, I tell them all to have a kind heart, be friendly toward everyone in a nonpartisan fashion: be equally loving to all. Whenever I go to various places, I see people of many different races, colors, nationalities, religions, and I think we are all people. If we take the time to speak with them, we discover that everyone has the same basic human values. Everyone wants to be happy and nobody wishes to suffer. Therefore, all of us need to try to be kind and to have a good heart.
Do you understand? What I am saying is not difficult to understand, is it? Do you follow me? Be kind people. You have come here to Bodh Gaya and have been receiving Dharma teachings from the Dalai Lama. This is my main message, be kind people. So now perk up your ears like rabbits and listen to the teachings of The Three Principal Aspects of the Path (Lam-gtso rnam-gsum) by Je Tsongkhapa.
Special Features of the Text
Tsongkhapa was born in Amdo and went to study with many teachers in the central Tibetan provinces of U and Tsang. He studied both sutra and tantra and became fully realized. He wrote eighteen volumes of teachings which are excellent, drawing sources widely from the various Indian texts and commentaries. He directed this specific text to one of his closest disciples, Ngawang Dragpa (Ngag-dbang grags-pa).
There is a slight difference in Tsongkhapa’s style of teaching in these Three Principal Aspects of the Path and in his lam-rim or graded path texts. Here, in the former, the explanation of renunciation is in two parts. The first is to turn away from our obsessions with this life through remembering our precious human rebirth and impermanence. The second is to turn away from our obsession with future lives by remembering the suffering nature of all of samsara. There is little emphasis on taking safe direction (refuge). In the lam-rim texts, on the other hand, there is the discussion of the three scopes of motivation. Since being a person of initial scope is the basis for the higher levels, there is first the development of interest to benefit future lives and, within this context, are included the teachings on taking safe direction. There is a slight difference, then, isn’t there?
Let us start the text.
Homage Verse, Promise to Compose, and Exhortation to Listen Well
I prostrate to my ennobling, impeccable lamas.
The term ennobling and impeccable in Tibetan is “jetsun” (rje-btsun), which has the connotation of someone who has turned his or her back on all things of samsara and is faced totally toward liberation. “Lama” means a superior person, in the sense of someone who has both bodhichitta and a correct understanding of voidness, which brings him or her to a superior or supreme state of enlightenment. Here, ennobling, impeccable lamas refer to Tsongkhapa’s gurus who taught him lam-rim, and especially to his uncommon teacher, Manjushri.
Next is the verse of the promise to compose.
(1) I shall try to explain, to the best of my ability, the essential meaning of all the scriptural pronouncements of the Triumphant Ones, the path praised by the Triumphants’ holy offspring, the fording passage for the fortunate desiring liberation.
The essential meaning of all the scriptural pronouncements of the Triumphant Ones refers to renunciation. The path praised by the Triumphant’s holy offspring, in other words the bodhisattvas, refers to bodhichitta. The fording passage for the fortunate desiring liberation is the understanding of voidness, which brings liberation. Thus, in the promise to compose, the author states that he will explain these three principal aspects of the path. To the best of my ability means he will try to do so in as abbreviated a form as possible.
(2) Listen with a clear (mind), O fortunate one, whose mind would rely on the path pleasing to the Triumphant, through being unattached to the pleasures of compulsive existence and eager to make meaningful your life of respites and enriching factors.
This is the request to listen well. It shows the type of motivation we need to have when hearing these teachings. The path pleasing to the Triumphant is one that is without mistakes and which is complete, with nothing missing. When we follow such an unmistaken and complete path, this pleases the Buddhas.
The Connection Between the Three Paths
The actual explanation of the main body of the text is divided into three: the explanations of renunciation, bodhichitta, and the correct view of voidness. These three constitute graded stages of understanding.
The stronger our renunciation of the so-called good things of samsara, the stronger will be our compassion for others. In Indian railway stations, for instance, we see blind men, people missing limbs, beggars and so forth, and it is relatively easy to develop compassion for them. But if we have no renunciation, then when we arrive, for instance, in a big city, then instead of compassion we just feel envious of the things we see or proud of what we have. On the other hand, if we are familiar with renunciation, with the idea of how the so-called good things of samsara are ultimately meaningless, then when we go to a place like New York, for instance, and see all these people, our first thought will instinctively be to feel compassion for them.
Renunciation has two directions of looking. On the one hand, with such an attitude, we look down at the suffering of samsara, with no interest in it, and we feel disgust and the wish to be rid of it completely. On the other hand, we look up at liberation and wish to attain it. The stronger this twofold attitude is, the stronger will be our bodhichitta aim, which similarly has two directions of looking, both up and down. Then, based on these, if we have a correct view of voidness, we will be able to attain either liberation or enlightenment.
The correct view is in terms of the two truths, which follow from the four noble truths. The Buddha, who is our source of safe direction, taught the Dharma with his speech. Specifically, he taught the four truths and the two truths, which are non-fallacious. They are never false.
So, it is important to understand and realize them. With bodhichitta, an understanding of voidness brings us the omniscient state of a Buddha. If it is only with renunciation, then it brings us liberation. Here in the text, the discussion is first of renunciation.
(3) Since taking keen interest in the pleasurable fruits of the ocean of compulsive existence, without pure renunciation is no method for (achieving) the peace (of liberation) – in fact, by craving what is found in compulsive situations, limited beings are completely bound – first, strive for renunciation.
The phrase pure renunciation is mentioned here. Renunciation must be pure in the sense of being totally disinterested in the glories or so-called good things of samsara. If we lack such pure renunciation and are totally obsessed with worldly concerns, there is no way to attain liberation. If we have desire and attachment, then no matter how much positive karma we might have, we will not be able to cut out the root of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Therefore, we need to develop renunciation. How to develop it?
(4) By accustoming your mind that there is no time to waste when a life of respites and enrichments is so difficult to find, turn from your obsession with the appearances of this life. By thinking over and again about the problems of recurring rebirth and that (the laws of) behavioral cause and effect are never fallacious, turn from your obsession with the appearances of future (lives).
We need to think about the precious human rebirth that we have with its respites and enrichments, and also about the fact, that we will lose it, for it is impermanent, and how death will come for sure. In this way, we will realize how rare the opportunity is that we have now and how we cannot afford to waste any time. This is how to turn our interest from being only in this life.
Concerning death and impermanence, there are various points upon which to meditate, such as the facts that death is certain, while the time it will come is completely uncertain. Death can happen at any moment and, except for the Dharma, nothing else is of help when it does. If we do not do something now about our forthcoming deaths and future lives, this will not do at all. The more we think of death like this, the more we will lessen our obsession with this life alone.
Next, we need to think about the infallibility of the laws of behavioral cause and effect, the laws of karma. To understand behavioral cause and effect in all its details is one of the hardest things. But, in a simple form, from good comes good, from bad comes bad: karma is certain. From constructive actions, happiness is certain to result. From destructive actions, suffering is certain to happen sooner or later.
Thus, if we have the causes for suffering on our mental continuums, how can we rest content and be at ease? It is like a time bomb: it is just a matter of time, for it is sure to go off. If we do not remove this cause, we can never rest at peace. When we think carefully about behavioral cause and effect in this way, we develop the strong wish to remove all the causes of our suffering.
At different times, we experience the suffering of birth, death, old age, and sickness. No matter how much medicine we take, we cannot cure old age and we cannot prevent ourselves from ever becoming sick at all. The sufferings of birth, sickness, old age, and death have their sources in the fact that we have bodies that undergo birth, sickness, old age, and death. Our bodies are networks of tainted (contaminated) aggregates. In other words, we receive them tainted with karma and disturbing emotions and attitudes. If we do not rid ourselves of their deepest cause, we will always have suffering.
Our bodies are networks of conflicting, contradictory forces. Consider for instance the forces of heat and cold in the body. If we have a fever, we take a cooling medicine and, if we take too much, we contract a cold type of disease. If we take a warming medicine to cure ourselves of this chill, and we take too much, then again we tip the scales and have a heat disease. It is only when we have a balance of the heat and cold forces in our bodies that then, temporarily, we can say we are healthy. But this never lasts. It is very precarious and at the slightest jolt, the balance is upset. Aryadeva pointed this out in his Four Hundred Verse Treatise (bZhi-brgya-pa, Skt. Catuhshataka). There, he explained that the body is a vessel of contradictory, mutually opposing forces; thus, it can bring about only problems and suffering.
We think that this body is so beautiful. But, we need to dissect it in our minds and look at each part separately, such as the head, for instance, or a strand of hair with a little bulb at the bottom. Look at an ear, look at an eye just by itself, look at a piece of skin, look at a heart, look at a lung. If they were sitting on the table by themselves, they would all be disgusting and not pretty at all. The same is true regarding the substances that come from this body – urine, feces, snot, and so on. We see these on the ground when we are walking around and we hold our noses to protect ourselves from their stench. Where did these objectionable substances come from? They have not grown out of the ground; they came from our bodies.
How can our bodies be clean, when they are just sources of filth? Our bodies came from our parents’ sperm and eggs. If we were to take these substances, put them on a table in front of us, and look at them, any person would feel revolted. We are so attached to them because they become the source of the physical substance of our bodies, yet they themselves are nauseating. If we have lived for forty years, for instance, think of all the food that we have eaten in those forty long years on one side and then all the feces and urine our bodies have turned them into on the other. How can this body be clean if it does such kind of work?
We must therefore abandon attachment for such a body. It comes from karma and disturbing emotions and attitudes, which bring only suffering. If we exhaust or eliminate the karma and disturbing emotions, we will never again take on tainted aggregates or suffer. Disturbing emotions and attitudes come from prejudiced thoughts and misconceptions, which all arise from the unawareness of regarding things as being inherently existent. If we realize that everything lacks such existence, our disturbing emotions and attitudes dissolve. They exhaust themselves in the sphere of voidness. So, this is what we need.
(5) When, by accustoming yourself in this way, you never generate, for even an instant, a mind that aspires for the splendors of recurring samsara, and you develop the attitude that day and night always is interested keenly in liberation, at that time, you have generated renunciation.
Thus, we need to develop renunciation. Next, we need a bodhichitta aim.
(6) But since even this renunciation, if not held with the development of a pure bodhichitta aim, will not become a cause for the splendors and bliss of a peerless purified state (of enlightenment), those with sense generate a supreme bodhichitta aim.
As we have said before, if we lack bodhichitta, we cannot attain enlightenment.
(7) Carried by the currents of the four violent rivers, tied by the tight fetters of karma, hard to reverse, thrown into an iron-mesh pit of grasping for true identities, completely enshrouded in the heavy gloom of the darkness of unawareness,
(8) Unrelentingly tormented by the three types of suffering, life after life in limitless compulsive existence – having thought about the condition of your mothers who have found themselves in situations like these, develop a supreme bodhichitta aim.
Carried by the currents of the four violent rivers refers to the four sufferings of birth, death, old age, and sickness. We are tied by the tight fetters of negative force from our destructive karmic actions, and these negative forces are sure to ripen some day. We are in an iron-mesh pit of unawareness, and in the heavy gloom of the darkness of not seeing the true nature of reality. Both persons and phenomena seem to be inherently existent, but they do not exist in that way at all.
We have a continuum of ever-changing aggregate factors and the mere “I” is something labeled on that changing continuum as its basis. Out of unawareness, however, we grasp at that “me,” which is labeled on a network of changing phenomena, and we misconceive it to be permanent, static, and findable as an inherently real “me.” The darkness of this unawareness then causes us to build up a huge amount of negative force. This negative force throws us in an iron-mesh pit of karma, where we are tied by the fetters of this karma and of our disturbing emotions and attitudes. Consequently, we naturally experience the three sufferings life after life, as it says here. These are the sufferings of suffering, change, and all-encompassing suffering. Since this is the condition of all our mothers as well, we need to work to help them by developing a bodhichitta aim.
Next concerns voidness.
A Correct View of Emptiness (Voidness)
(9) Even if you have built up as habits renunciation and a bodhichitta aim, still, if you lack the discriminating awareness of realizing the abiding nature of reality, you will be unable to sever the root of your compulsive existence. Therefore, make effort in the methods for realizing dependent arising.
Tsongkhapa’s main point is for the understanding of voidness to arise as the meaning of dependent arising and the understanding of dependent arising to arise as the meaning of voidness. Thus, we need to make efforts in the methods for realizing voidness as dependent arising. How to do this?
(10) Anyone who has seen that (the laws of) behavioral cause and effect regarding all phenomena of samsara and nirvana are never fallacious, and who has had fall apart the sustaining supports of his or her (cognitions) aimed (at inherent existence), whatever they might have been, has entered the path pleasing to the Buddhas.
All phenomena of samsara and nirvana come about through cause and effect. This is never fallacious, never false. When we understand this and, in addition, have the underlying, sustaining support of our aiming at inherent existence fall apart, then we have entered the path pleasing to the Buddhas. When we understand voidness, we will no longer have cognition aimed at inherent existence. In this way, the basis for these mistaken cognitions to arise – their sustaining support, which is our grasping for inherent existence – will have fallen apart or disappeared.
(11) Appearances are non-fallacious dependent arisings and voidness is parted from any assertions (of impossible ways of existing). So long as you have these two understandings appearing to you separately, you still have not realized the Able Ones’ intention.
When we understand voidness, we see there is nothing at which we can point a finger and say this is this object. All things are unfindable on ultimate analysis. Yet, on the other hand, we see that things are mere appearances. To think that these two are completely separate unrelated insights – things being unfindable on the one hand and yet only appearances on the other – is not Buddha’s intention concerning voidness and the two truths.
(12) But when, not in alternation, but all together at once, your certitude from the mere sight of non-fallacious dependent arising causes all your ways of taking objects (as inherently existent) to fall apart, you have completed discerning the correct view.
What we need, then, is to see that because things dependently arise – because appearances depend on causes and circumstances to arise – they are devoid of inherent existence; they are devoid of independent existence. The fact that they can arise dependently on causes and circumstances is simply because they are devoid of existing independently. Thus, the stronger our understanding and conviction is that things dependently arise, that things depend on cause and effect, the stronger our understanding and conviction will be that things are devoid of independent, inherent existence; and vice versa. To understand these two simultaneously in conjunction like this means we have completed the correct analysis of voidness.
(13) Further, when you know how appearance eliminates the extreme of existence and voidness eliminates the extreme of nonexistence, and how voidness dawns as cause and effect, you will never be stolen away by views that grasp for extremes.
Often, we find it explained that the fact of appearance eliminates the extreme of total non-existence – things are not totally nonexistent, because they do appear. And also, the fact of voidness eliminates the extreme of inherent existence – things are not inherently existent, because they are devoid of existing in that impossible way.
Here, however, we have an opposite way of assertion. The fact of appearance eliminates the extreme of inherent existence. This is because, for things to appear, they must be devoid of inherent existence. They must be phenomena that dependently arise. Therefore, the fact that they do appear eliminates the possibility that they could exist inherently.
Further, the fact of voidness eliminates the extreme of total nonexistence. The fact that something is devoid of inherent existence means that it can appear by dependently arising: it could not possibly be totally nonexistent. Therefore, the fact of voidness eliminates the extreme of total nonexistence.
This is Tsongkhapa’s special manner of assertion and it accords with Choney Rinpoche’s (Co-ne Rin-po-che) commentary to Tsongkhapa’s Praises to Dependent Arising (rTen-'brel bstod-pa). Thus, the understanding of things being devoid of inherent existence because they dependently arise, and that things dependently arise because they are devoid of inherent existence, prevents us from falling to either of the two extremes of grasping at true, inherent existence or at total nonexistence.
Next is the injunction to practice.
Injunction to Practice
(14) When you have understood the points of these three principle aspects of the path, as they are, rely on solitude and, by generating the power of joyful perseverance, quickly realize, my son, your immemorial goal.
When we have gained understanding of renunciation, bodhichitta and voidness, through the power of listening to correct teachings on them and then thinking about and analyzing them until we gain conviction their meaning, we then need to live in solitude and devote ourselves single-pointedly to meditating on and realizing them. This we need to do with great joyous perseverance as the famous masters of the past have done, for instance the well-known Milarepa (Mi-la Ras-pa), the great Gyalwa Ensapa (rGyal-ba dBen-sa-pa) and his spiritual sons, Kedrub Sanggye Yeshe (mKhas-grub Sangs-rgyas ye-shes), and so on. Then we can reach the immemorial goal of enlightenment. “My son” here refers to Tsongkhapa’s close disciple, Ngawang Dragpa, whom we mentioned before.
Concluding Remarks on Nonsectarianism
This concludes the short commentary on The Three Principal Aspects of the Path. It is a very important text and, has included in it, the essence of the complete sutra path and the heart of the tantra paths. The teachings on voidness are a bit tough, aren’t they? Unless we are very familiar with the technical terms, then when it speaks of the correct view, the two truths, voidness and so on, it may be confusing. There are distinctive ways of defining and asserting these terms in the four Indian Buddhist schools of philosophical tenets of the sutras, and different ways in the four classes of tantra. Also there is a different way of defining them in the four different traditions of Buddhism in Tibet in their own specific contexts and systems.
We need to try to understand them all so that we know the implications of the terms, according to their context, and we do not become confused. Just to know one system and then to criticize the others simply because they are different and we do not understand them in their own terms is very destructive. As Nagarjuna has said in The Precious Garland (Rin-chen ‘phreng-ba, Skt: Ratnamala) and Shantideva in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-‘ jug, Skt. Bodhisattvacharya-avatara), in such instances it is best to remain indifferent and silent, and not to say anything.
Even within the teachings of one tradition, the Gelug for instance, there are the assertions of the understanding of voidness according to sutra and according to tantra. There is no difference in subtlety concerning the object, voidness, in either sutra or tantra. The difference lies in the mind that understands voidness. Furthermore, in both sutra and tantra, there are different definitions and explanations of conventional and deepest truths and the way to meditate on the two. Even within the anuttarayoga class of tantra, various systems differ. For instance, the methods outlined in the Guhyasamaja system are quite different from those in the Kalachakra teachings. Also, we find differences in the ways to do stabilizing meditation (formal meditation) and discerning meditation (analytical meditation). If we have not studied all these systems, we will become very confused.
In short, if we do not know anything about a certain system, we need to not say anything about it and certainly not criticize. Only on a nonsectarian basis will we be able to appreciate the full scope of the Buddha’s teachings.
Read and listen to the original text
"The Three Principal Aspects of the Path" by Tsongkhapa.