Today, I’m here to teach on the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, a concise text written by Lama Tsongkhapa. What I’ll share is not my own knowledge, but rather what has been taught to me by my own precious teachers. I do not have any realizations myself, but I’ll do my best to pass on these teachings to you.
The organizers kept asking me which topic I would like to teach. They sent me many emails, but I didn’t reply. I didn’t actually say anything until yesterday, because I wasn’t sure what I was going to teach. Also, I thought it would be nice for it to be a surprise. I love surprises. It’s a bit like when you shop online. You wait with big expectations for the delivery, unsure if the purchases will be good or bad. Anticipating things is half the fun!
In the end, I decided to teach on the Three Principal Aspects of the Path. Even though it’s a concise text, it is vast in its meaning. It is difficult to teach it profoundly in such a short time, but it’s still worthwhile for us to have a discussion together on the text. For those who have studied it before, there might be some repetition. But it’s always good to have repetition when it’s a precious text. So, hopefully it will be beneficial.
Setting a Proper Motivation
Before every constructive activity, especially Dharma activity, we have to set a proper motivation. It’s one of the most important things, and I’m sure most of you already know this. So, I don’t need to say much about motivation.
The date today is April 25, which is Liberation Day here in Italy. Everyone has a holiday, and some people go to the sea, while others go to meet with friends or to restaurants to enjoy good food and so on. Instead, you’ve all gathered here at Lama Tsongkhapa Institute to look at my face! Still, there is a reason for us to have met here. Whoever you are and wherever you come from, you have your own provisional goals and your ultimate goals. With whatever I teach, I urge you to listen to these Dharma teachings and check for yourself whether they correspond to your goals or not.
When I say, “Please listen well to the teachings,” it’s not that I think that I have that much to say. I don’t think that you will change right away as soon as I say something. There are no expectations here. I have no hope of making a profound change in your life. But with the thoughts of the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I will try to make you feel the taste of Dharma.
We can see that the world today is facing a very difficult time. Every decision we make makes a difference, and so it is crucial for us to make the right ones. We can see how the weather is changing and we ourselves might have witnessed untimely rains bringing floods and other weather conditions that are not common for Italy, or for the Himalayas where I live. Actually, it is happening everywhere else in the world as well. We can say that about 90% of this depends on our actions as human beings, so therefore we have to be very careful about how we act.
On top of that, apart from these global problems, we have our own problems, with our families and relationships, with money and so on. Through examining our situations, we can come to understand just how much we need to do in order to improve it. It’s something that we should do, not only for our own welfare, but also for the welfare of the entire world, everyone around us, and the planet.
Now, before we set about trying to improve something, we should set up a proper motivation. When we go back home after these teachings, we should think about helping the people who are close to us, our parents, our friends, how to be kind and patient with them. Keep in mind that we are not only doing it for ourselves but for everyone in the world. Such a motivation will bring a lot of benefit and your life will have a strong sense of meaning.
Before we start Dharma teachings, to set the motivation we usually recite the refuge and bodhichitta prayer. There are two kinds of refuge: causal and resultant. Causal refuge is when we entrust ourselves to a conventional teacher and rely on them to provide us with a safe direction in life. It is the direction indicated by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the Three Jewels. With this causal refuge, we feel, “The teacher and I are separate entities.” Resultant refuge is when we rely on our own discriminating awareness, not on the discriminating awareness of an external teacher. We understand what is good, what is bad, what should be done, and what shouldn’t be done. But before we attain this resultant level of refuge, we of course need to rely on a proper teacher and generate causal refuge. But ultimately, to become a Buddha, we need to develop and actually practice resultant refuge. The prayer is:
I take safe direction, till my purified state, from the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Highest Assembly. By the positive force of my giving and so on, may I actualize Buddhahood to help those who wander.
The first line is the taking of causal refuge. Where it says, “till my purified state,” a purified state, a state of bodhi, is either liberation or enlightenment. It is stated like this because both Hinayana and Mahayana practitioners take causal refuge in common, and Hinayana practitioners aim for attaining just liberation, not enlightenment.
The second line is the taking of resultant refuge and is exclusive to Mahayana. With this line, we are making an aspiration to become the actual refuge for all sentient beings, by having generated bodhichitta, the mind that aims for enlightenment, and having achieved the state of a Buddha. With this in mind, let’s recite this verse three times and generate a good motivation for listening to these teachings today. Remember how fortunate we all are to be here and how strongly we would like to attain enlightenment to benefit all sentient beings.
The Three Principal Aspects of the Path
Now that we’ve set a good motivation, we can start with the teachings for today on the Three Principal Aspects of the Path by Lama Tsongkhapa. The three principal aspects covered in the text are renunciation, bodhichitta, and a correct view of emptiness, voidness. His Holiness the Dalai Lama usually likes to teach this text before bestowing initiations, because these three – renunciation, bodhichitta, and a correct view – are the utmost crucial teachings that we need to understand before undertaking tantra practice. Renunciation is especially important, as it is the basis for the other two aspects – bodhichitta and a correct view.
Lama Tsongkhapa mentions the three aspects as being basic or principal, and many lamas give teachings on these as the basic practices. When we hear the word “basic,” we might think that means it is not so special or important. But these teachings are extremely important. His Holiness is especially skilled in giving teachings on them due to his own profound experience. His Holiness and other lamas have realizations, and they know what they are talking about. We need to be very precise in following the teachings, otherwise there is always a possibility for us to misinterpret them.
Verse of Homage
The text starts with an expression of homage.
I prostrate to my ennobling, impeccable lamas.
Paying homage at the beginning of a text is a tradition started with the great masters and scholars from Nalanda in India. The way that Tsongkhapa pays homage, however, is a little different from how original Indian texts usually do it. Here, Lama Tsongkhapa bows down to his ennobling, impeccable lamas. Lamas who are ennobling and impeccable, are ones who have the three qualities of knowledge, love, and ability.
“Knowledge” means that the lama is able to show the true path to enlightenment. Usually, we would say that this means that the lama is skilled in methods and has gained their own realizations before teaching about them. “Love” is the inner quality of warmth. Some lamas can be well-educated and skilled in teaching, but there is no warmness inside. In such cases, it is difficult for students to develop a feeling of closeness to the lama, and so the students are not so open to the lama’s knowledge. The quality of love, then, is something that is important for a lama. The third quality, “ability” is that, no matter who comes before them, the lama knows how to act in order to benefit this particular person with this particular type of mind.
With the start of the text, Lama Tsongkhapa pays homage to all the lamas who have these three qualities, by offering them prostration. It is really good to pay homage to and prostrate with the three doors of our body, speech and mind. On top of it being a homage, prostration is also a good antidote against arrogance. Sometimes when we study and, especially, if we’ve studied a lot – and I am talking from experience here! – we feel like we already know everything and so there’s no need to study the text again. I think this shows that we still have arrogance. The thought, “I know it all, there is nothing new that I will hear here,” is an assumption that the teacher before us doesn’t know more than we do. If it’s really the case and we are so knowledgeable, then that’s great. Then there is nothing to be worried about. But in most cases, there is always something new to learn. There is always a different angle to look at.
Therefore, we can’t really say that, since we’ve heard the explanation of a particular text before, we should not listen to it again. If we can remember that the teacher might have other ways to explain it and can show us different angles, it will break our arrogance and we will be able to get a much better and broader understanding of the teachings. Especially if we are new to the Dharma, it is very good to have the motivation of, “Since I don’t know this text, I need to study and develop these good qualities, so I have to be patient and attentive.” That’s a good motivation to study the text.
I think many of you might already be bored, so I will tell a story! I studied at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India. It is nearby His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple. We often had the opportunity to listen to His Holiness’ teachings, and each time he would give teachings, the whole class would go. During those three years when I was studying, His Holiness gave teachings on Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. One time, one of my friends didn’t know what the topic of the teachings would be and asked someone else. Somebody told him it was Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, and my friend said, “Again? We’ve already listened to those teachings. I have other work to do.” I didn’t say anything, but I got quite upset. I felt like it was not my business and didn’t want to argue with him, but I felt really bad about it. I remember thinking it was a terrible attitude to have. At some point, I went to see my teacher and asked him what to do in this kind of situation. He said it happens when we have too much arrogance.
There’s another story about Atisha, one of the greatest masters in Tibetan history, and one of his students, Lama Dromtonpa. Lama Dromtonpa would go to all the teachings of Atisha, listening closely again and again. People asked him why he would listen to those teachings all the time. They would say that he knew everything already. But Lama Dromtonpa would say that even though he had heard something before, there was always the possibility that he hadn’t understood everything. Therefore, as students, we need to listen to the teachings again and again without arrogance.
I think of my own teachers and how kind they have been to me. I have two teachers, one is younger, one is older. Out of arrogance, I would occasionally compare my teachers and think that the older one wasn’t as skillful as the younger one. Sometimes the students just wouldn’t understand what he said, so I took that to mean that he wasn’t as skillful a teacher. One day, I went with my two teachers to listen to some Dharma teachings, and afterwards, the younger teacher said that there was a point he didn’t understand well. Then, the older teacher went ahead and explained everything so clearly.
I was surprised because we’d all been listening to the same teachings, but I didn’t even hear those words during them. Where did the teacher get them from? I asked him this question. He said, “Because I have experience, I understood it.” At that point, I regretted my arrogant thinking and remembered those three qualities we just mentioned, of deep knowledge of the teachings, warmheartedness, and understanding the minds of the students. The teacher has to teach in accordance with the minds of the students so that they can actually understand the teachings. I now saw that this was a quality that my teacher had never lacked all along. I learned my lesson. From then on, I started to think of my two teachers as equal in knowledge and kindness.
It’s not easy to teach. From my own experience, I cannot say that I explain things well or that I have any realizations. I can only share what I’ve heard before. I don’t have the same qualities as my teachers. So, is there any benefit in what I’m saying here? Well, I hope it benefits you. Let’s continue with the text.
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 three principal aspects of the path described by Lama Tsongkhapa – those of renunciation, bodhichitta, and a correct view – are the essential meaning of all the scriptural pronouncements of the Triumphant Ones. In other words, they are the essence of the entire Buddhadharma. The Buddha gave so many teachings. In the Tibetan tradition, we have the Kangyur, which includes the translated teachings of the Buddha, and the Tengyur, the translations of all the Indian commentaries to them. Together, they are over 300 volumes, but the essence of them all are these three aspects that Lama Tsongkhapa is writing about.
The Buddha himself possessed the three qualities of knowledge, love and ability. First of all, he understood that all sentient beings equally want happiness and dislike suffering. He discovered that the reason for sentient beings to be unhappy and experience suffering is due to disturbing emotions. In turn, the root of disturbing emotions, what makes them arise, are the self-cherishing mind, the mind that grasps for a self, and the mind that doesn’t understand the voidness of the self. The antidote to such minds is the discriminating awareness that realizes voidness. We have to develop a correct understanding of voidness and rely on it in order to eliminate our suffering.
All of us have the same ability and potential to liberate ourselves from suffering. This is what is sometimes called our “Buddha-nature,” the potential inside every one of us to become a Buddha. Every teaching that the Buddha gave on every single topic, every smile he showed, and behind his every action, the motivation was to teach us how to liberate ourselves from this ocean of suffering. Every enlightening act of the Buddha has the motivation of teaching us voidness.
Unfortunately, most of us can’t just jump ahead to immediately understanding voidness. We need to go step by step. Je Tsongkhapa’s skillful method of teaching this text is by showing us a gradual path. By following the path, we will eventually understand selflessness and generate all the minds that lead to full enlightenment. This is exactly why we say that these are the essential meaning of all the scriptural pronouncements of the Triumphant Ones.
We cannot underestimate the importance of voidness. The main goal of attaining the realization of voidness is to be able to achieve liberation and Buddhahood. Liberation and Buddhahood are not the same thing. Liberation is a provisional goal, while the state of Buddhahood is the final, ultimate goal. The discriminating awareness that realizes voidness is a necessary condition for achieving both these two states: the state of liberation and the state of Buddhahood. However, it is only when someone is endowed with bodhichitta that they can achieve Buddhahood. A realization of voidness alone only brings liberation, but the state of a Buddha is something that is achieved with realizations of both voidness and bodhichitta.
The Three Types of Suffering and the Two Kinds of Bodhichitta
In Buddhism, we speak about three types of suffering. The first is the suffering of unhappiness, sometimes called the suffering of suffering. The second is the suffering of change. And the third is all-pervasive suffering. This third kind is the root of the first two types of suffering. It refers to the fact that we have tainted aggregates, which act as a basis of all the other types of suffering. They make us suffer again and again. There is no other way to liberate ourselves from every possible suffering apart from realizing voidness non-conceptually. The realization of voidness brings us both liberation and enlightenment. Therefore, voidness is the main realization that we have to develop.
There are two types of bodhichitta: conventional and deepest. Deepest bodhichitta is the discriminating awareness that realizes voidness, while conventional or relative bodhichitta is the aspiration to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit not only ourselves, but also all sentient beings. These two aspects are equally important and we need to have them both.
If we understand voidness, we also understand that all the phenomena of the entirety of existence have no essence. We will see that the only real happiness we can have is that of the state of liberation and Buddhahood. At the same time, without renunciation – the determination to be free of all suffering – any of the qualities that we manage to develop won’t have that much effect. They won’t be able to bring us directly to liberation and Buddhahood. It is renunciation that helps us proceed on the path to Buddhahood.
Usually, we think that bodhichitta is so great and the right view of voidness is so amazing. Of course, we need to develop them, but we must not forget about renunciation. Renunciation is equally as important. So here, with the line: the fording passage for the fortunate desiring liberation, Lama Tsongkhapa emphasizes that, without renunciation, there is no liberation from samsara. Therefore, the first of the three principal aspects of the path is renunciation, followed by bodhichitta and the correct view of voidness.
As for the line: the path praised by the Triumphants’ holy offspring, sometimes the term “offspring” is translated literally as “sons.” But actually, the term is more inclusive than just sons. We should remember that the Heart Sutra speaks of both spiritual sons and spiritual daughters. So, here as well, Lama Tsongkhapa is speaking about both sons and daughters. Everybody, all women and men, have the ability to achieve liberation and Buddhahood equally and to generate bodhichitta equally. There are no gender limitations.
That the three aspects are the basis for us to attain the ultimate goal of Buddhahood is praised not only by the Buddhas, then, but also by their sons and daughters. The sons and daughters of the Buddhas are the bodhisattvas. It’s not that the Buddha is biased and especially likes bodhisattvas and so calls them his sons and daughters. Rather, due to their thorough practice, bodhisattvas are those who have automatically-arising, unlabored bodhichitta, the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of others. Therefore, it is said they have been born in the family of the Buddhas, and that’s why they are called the Triumphant Buddhas’ sons and daughters. Such practitioners, who have pure bodhichitta and who wish to attain enlightenment, praise this path and the teachings that bring all sentient beings to Buddhahood.
Bodhisattvas see that renunciation, the wish to attain liberation, is so important and that, without it, there is also no wish to attain Buddhahood. So, wishing for liberation is the first stage on the path. There is no way to skip it. Therefore, the practices that bring us to the stages of liberation and Buddhahood are highly praised by bodhisattvas as being one path, as being inseparable.
This path praised by the Buddhas and their offspring is not mentioned by the shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, or arhats of the Hinayana vehicle. They have the realization of renunciation – the determination to liberate themselves from samsara – but they don’t have bodhichitta, and so do not attain full enlightenment. This path that Lama Tsongkhapa will discuss here is for bodhisattvas, who wish to attain enlightenment and not only liberation. Therefore, it is said that the Buddhas and bodhisattvas praise this path.
How Fortunate We Are to Have Access to the Dharma
Sentient beings who have the ability and real wish to attain the three goals of renunciation, bodhichitta, and correct view are called fortunate in the verse, because the teachings on how to do so are available, and there are teachers who can teach them.
It is very important to contemplate just how fortunate we are to have these teachings available, and that we actually have the ability to attain our ultimate goals. When we are young, we can’t really understand what reality is. Everything seems good and we just enjoy our lives. In early adulthood, we start to face more problems, and we see how life is not ideal, and that, if life continues this way, it lacks any meaning. We gradually start to understand how samsara works and how much we suffer. This is a very important feeling that we need to keep in mind because it helps us to liberate ourselves later on.
Imagine that two people come up to us. One says that they have a method for temporary liberation from our problems, and the other says they have an ultimate method for the complete removal of all our problems forever. Of course, all of us would choose the ultimate one. It is like when we are ill. If we are offered a medicine that only helps temporarily and a medicine that cures the illness ultimately, then, even if this second medicine is more expensive and difficult to get, we would choose that one because it makes us completely free from our suffering and illness.
Buddhahood is not just liberation from samsara, it is the ultimate state that frees us from any type of suffering, including the suffering of self-grasping. Even though it seems far away and difficult to attain, this goal is absolutely worth achieving. It means ultimate liberation from every type of suffering and pain we have. Having the wish to attain the state of ultimate liberation is also considered very fortunate.
However, if we have the wish to eliminate our own suffering but don’t pay attention to how other sentient beings suffer, that is quite selfish. Okay, we are able to liberate ourselves, but what about other sentient beings who will continue suffering because of being confused about reality? This is why we need compassion. Without compassion, we act selfishly to achieve the ultimate goal. But actually, without compassion, we are not able to achieve the ultimate goal of Buddhahood. We can attain only liberation, nothing further, if we only think about ourselves. Therefore, bodhisattvas aspire to achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings because they see with their eyes of compassion how sentient beings suffer.
Generally speaking, in order to improve society and the world, we can understand that it all depends on every single one of us. Countries and societies are separated but we are all interconnected and our own realizations will help other sentient beings. Therefore, understanding that, we can develop a vast aspiration not only for liberation for our own sake but for all sentient beings to be free from suffering. We can see how great those three principal aspects are: renunciation, bodhichitta, and correct view. Without the precious teachings, we wouldn’t know any methods to get rid of our problems and the problems of other sentient beings.
Therefore, Lama Tsongkhapa says:
I shall try to explain, to the best of my ability, the essential meaning of all the scriptural pronouncements of the Triumphant Ones
With a strong motivation of compassion, Lama Tsongkhapa wanted these precious teachings to be given to as many sentient beings as possible, and thus he promises to compose this text. Now, from our side, we need to listen well to the teachings.