How and Why to Follow the Graded Buddhist Path

What Is Lam-rim and How Did It Derive from Buddha’s Teachings?

The graded path, lam-rim, is a way to access and integrate the basic Buddhist teachings into our lives. Buddha lived 2,500 years ago, with a community of monks, and later on, a community of nuns. He not only taught the ordained communities, but was often invited to various people’s homes where he was offered a meal and, afterwards, would give a talk.

Buddha always taught with what we call “skillful means,” which refers to his method of teaching others in a way they would be able to understand. This was necessary because there were, and of course still are, so many different levels of intelligence and spiritual development. This led to Buddha teaching on a wide variety of topics at very different levels.

Many of Buddha’s followers had phenomenal memories. At that time nothing was written down and the teachings were memorized by the monks, to be passed down orally to later generations. Eventually, the teachings were written down, and became known as the sutras. Centuries after this, many great Indian masters tried to organize the material and write commentaries on it all. Atisha, one of the Indian masters who went to Tibet, created the prototype of this presentation, the lam-rim, in the eleventh century.

Atisha’s prototype presented a method through which everyone could develop themselves toward the state of a Buddha. Just to read sutras randomly doesn’t necessarily give us a clear spiritual path of where to start, or how to achieve enlightenment. All of the material is there, but it’s not easy to put it all together.

This is exactly what the lam-rim does, by presenting the material in a graded order. After Atisha, there have been many different, more elaborate versions written in Tibet. We’ll be looking at the version written in the fifteenth century by Tsongkhapa, which constitutes possibly the largest elaboration of the material. An outstanding feature of Tsongkhapa’s work is that it includes quotations from the sutras and Indian commentaries, so we can be confident that he isn’t just making anything up.

Another outstanding feature is that Tsongkhapa provides very elaborate, logical demonstrations of all the various points, so that we gain an even stronger confidence in the validity of the teachings based on logic and reason. Tsongkhapa’s special characteristic was that, unlike previous authors who tended to skip over the most difficult points, he would focus on them.

Of the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions, what originated with Tsongkhapa is known as the “Gelugpa” tradition.

What Is the Meaning of a Spiritual Path, and How to Structure It?

The question really is, how to structure a spiritual path? Many different methods were taught in general in India. Methods for developing concentration, for instance, were common in all of the other Indian traditions at Buddha’s time. It’s not something he discovered or made up. Everyone agreed that we need to look at how we can bring concentration and all the other facets into our spiritual path with regard to how we develop ourselves.

Buddha, naturally, had different explanations for understanding many of the points for how to develop ourselves, but what is really specific is his understanding of the spiritual goals. The main principle of these spiritual goals, and what is put into different grades, is our motivation.

The term given to this literature is lam-rim, with “lam” translated as “path,” and “rim” refers to the graded stages of this path. This path is the various states of mind that we need to develop, in a graded order, to reach our goal. It’s just like when we travel; if we want to go overland from Romania to India, then India is our ultimate goal. But first of all, we might need to go through Turkey, Iran and so forth, before we eventually reach India.

Spiritual Motivation: Putting Meaning in Our Lives

What is graded in the lam-rim is usually our motivation, which according to the Buddhist presentation is a two-part thing. Motivation is connected to a certain goal or aim that we have, plus an emotion that drives us to reach that goal. Even more precisely, we have a reason why we want to reach a goal, plus an emotion that drives us there.

This makes total sense in terms of our everyday lives; we also have various goals at different stages in our life. For example, we want to get an education, or meet a lifetime partner, or find a good job, and so on. There can be positive emotions as well as negative emotions involved with this, and it differs from person to person. In any case, this presentation of graduated motivations is something that applies to our ordinary lives.

The same thing is true in terms of our spiritual motivations. These are states of mind that are completely relevant to our daily lives. What are we doing with our lives? Well, there is the “worldly level,” where we have our families, jobs and so on. But what are we doing on a spiritual level? This also affects how we live. It’s very important that these two aspects of our lives are not contradictory or mutually exclusive, but rather that they somehow blend harmoniously.

Not only do they need to be harmonious, but each needs to support the other. Our spiritual life should give us strength to lead our usual worldly life, while our worldly life should provide us with the resources to be able to practice our spiritual life. Everything that we learn through these graded stages of the lam-rim needs to be applied to our everyday life.

Becoming a Better Person

What are we doing, then, with Buddhist practice presented here? Buddhist practice in general can be summed up in a few words. In simple language, we are working on ourselves to become better persons. This term “better person” might sound judgmental, but absolutely no judgment is implied here. That’s not the point. We are just trying to overcome the destructive behavior and negative emotions that we all sometimes have, like anger, greed, selfishness and so on.

In no way is Buddhism exclusive in being the only religion or philosophy or practice that aims for this type of goal. We find the same thing in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and we find it in humanitarianism as well. It’s everywhere. The Buddhist methods, like what we find in these other ones, can help us to achieve this type of goal by offering an approach to becoming a better person in a graded way.

To become a “better person,” we would first want to stop acting in destructive ways, where we cause harm to others. For this, we would have to exercise some self-control. On a deeper level, once we’re able to do this, we would then focus on overcoming what causes us to actually act destructively: anger, greed, attachment, jealousy, hatred and so on. In order to do this, we need to understand how these negative emotions arise and how they work. In this way, we develop certain types of understanding that help lessen or eliminate these disturbing emotions.

Then we can go even deeper and work on what is really underlying all of these disturbing emotions, by recognizing our selfishness and self-centered way of thinking only of ourselves. We normally think, “I always have to have my own way.” When we don’t get our way, we often get angry. Although we always want everything to be the way we want it to be, why should it be like that? There is absolutely no reason, except that we want it like that. Everybody thinks the same way, and we can’t all be correct.

We would work, gradually over time, to the point where we can overcome this most fundamental troublemaker. Our selfishness, when we analyze it, depends on our concept of “me” and my “self.” In other words, our concept of how we exist is based on this idea that “I am something special,” as if we are each the center of the universe, the most important person who is independent of everybody else. We have to investigate this perception because obviously there is something very mistaken and distorted about it. This is precisely what the graduated path addresses.

Progressive Levels of Motivation: Dharma-Lite

The methods taught by Buddha are very helpful for these types of goals. Basically, we have a reason why we would want to avoid destructive behavior and negative emotions like anger and selfishness. This reason would probably be because we understand that when we act under the influence of these, it’s not pleasant and causes problems to ourselves and others. We don’t want these problems!

We can also approach this problem-making in a graduated way. If I act in certain ways, it produces problems and difficulties right now. For example, if we got into a big fight with someone and injured them, we could also get hurt or thrown in jail. On a deeper level, we can also look at the longer-term implications of our destructive behavior, because we also want to avoid trouble in the future, and not just right now. Developing this further, we might also want to avoid creating trouble and problems for our family, loved ones, friends and society. All of this is contained within the boundaries of this lifetime. To go even further, we could think in even more encompassing terms, like wanting to avoid causing difficulties for future generations, such as global warming.

With all of these motivations, it is not that we give up the earlier ones when we develop the later ones. Instead, they are accumulative and add to each other. This is the general principle of the graded path. Everything that’s been described above is what I call “Dharma-Lite.” It presents the Buddhist teachings, the “Dharma,” in terms of this life alone, with no mention of rebirth. I have made up these terms “Dharma-Lite” and “Real Thing Dharma” in parallel to Coca-Cola Lite and the real, sugar-packed Coca-Cola.

Giving Rebirth the Benefit of the Doubt While Thinking Only to Improve This Life

Dharma” is a Sanskrit word referring to the teachings of the Buddha. “Lite” doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with it, but just that it’s not the strong, real version. The actual presentation of the lam-rim that we find in the Tibetan traditions is the real thing, but this might be too much for many of us at the beginning. The main reason for this is that it totally assumes that we fully believe in rebirth, and all of the topics are presented on the premise that there is rebirth. From this viewpoint, we start working to avoid trouble in our future lives and improving them.

If we didn’t believe in future lives, then how could we possibly be sincere in our motivation to improve them? It’s just not possible. When we have questions about the idea of past and future lives, and when we aren’t convinced or don’t even understand them, then we need to start with Dharma-Lite. We need to be honest with ourselves in terms of what we are actually aiming for in our spiritual practice.

For most of us, we’re probably aiming to make this life a little bit better. And that’s a completely valid aim. It’s a beginning and very necessary step. When we’re at this level of Dharma-Lite, however, it’s important to acknowledge that it is Dharma-Lite and not the real thing. By confusing the two, we reduce Buddhism merely to another form of therapy or self-help. That’s rather limiting and not fair to Buddhism.

We also need to acknowledge if we don’t even understand what Real Thing Dharma is all about, let alone believe that it’s true. We should be open-minded, thinking, “I’m not sure if what they say about future lives and liberation is correct, but right now I’ll work at a Dharma-Lite level. As I develop further and study and meditate more, perhaps I’ll understand more about Real Thing Dharma.” This is a perfectly valid and sound approach, based on respect for Buddha and conviction that he wasn’t just speaking nonsense when he taught those things.

We can also acknowledge that certain ideas we might have ourselves that define and explain future lives and liberation, for example, might be totally incorrect, and that Buddhism wouldn’t accept those preconceived definitions or explanations either. So what we think something means, or what we find ridiculous, Buddha might also find ridiculous because it’s a completely wrong understanding. For instance, that we are like a soul with wings that flies out of the body and then enters another is something that Buddha would not accept either. Buddha would also reject the idea that we could become almighty God ourselves.

The Advantages of Thinking in Terms of Beginningless Rebirth

Most of the methods presented in this graded path can be applied in the Dharma-Lite or Real Thing Dharma way. However, there are some methods that really do depend on understanding future lives. For example, to be able to develop equal love toward everybody, one of the methods is to recognize that everyone has had beginningless rebirths and that there is a finite number of beings. From this starting point, it follows logically that at one point or another every single being has been our mother, and everyone else’s mother. We have also been the mother of every other being. One could present mathematical proof of this logic, of no beginning but a finite number of beings. If there were both infinite time and infinite beings, then we couldn’t prove that it works this way.

Obviously, this is a very difficult topic to relate to, especially if we’ve never thought in terms of infinite previous rebirths. On the basis of infinite rebirth, we can think in terms of the motherly love all beings have shown us, appreciating it, and wanting to be kind and loving in return. There is a whole development that’s based on it. Part of this process is seeing that it’s just a matter of time concerning when this or that person was our mother. Whether we haven’t seen our mother in ten minutes, ten days, or ten years, she’s still our mother. Similarly, if we hadn’t seen her in ten lifetimes, she’s still our mother. This is a way of thinking that can be very helpful if we do believe in rebirth. Without this belief, it’s just nonsense.

This applies especially when we think of mosquitoes, and not just people. This mosquito was our mother in a previous lifetime, because rebirth can be in any form that has mental activity. There is also a Dharma-Lite version of this, where we see how anyone could bring us home, take care of us and feed us. Everyone is capable of that; when we travel, we often find that complete strangers can be really very nice to us and offer us hospitality. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman, everyone can act like a mother toward us. A child, when they’re older, can help to take care of us. This can be very helpful, even if it’s a little limited because it’s difficult to think that this mosquito we see could take me home and take care of me like a mother.

That illustrates a bit about how methods can be applied on the Dharma-Lite and Real Thing Dharma levels. Both of them are very helpful in their own ways, but the Dharma-Lite version is limited. Real Thing Dharma opens up a much larger universe of possibilities. Regardless of which level we apply, the main point is to apply it in daily life. When we’re caught in traffic, or we’re waiting in a long queue, and we get angry or impatient with others, we can view them all as being like our mother. We can think of this as either in some past life or in this life, and it’ll help to quiet our anger, helping us to develop patience. If our mother were really ahead of us in the queue, I’m sure we wouldn’t at all mind that she gets served first. In fact, we’d probably be very happy for her to be served first. In this way we can try to apply these understandings. We’re not just supposed to develop these states of mind only when we’re sitting on our meditation cushion, but to do it in our everyday lives.

Meditation as the Method to Work on Ourselves

When the Dharma process is described as working on ourselves, this is what is meant. When we meditate in a quiet, controlled atmosphere in our room, we are practicing generating these types of understanding and these more positive states of mind. We use our imagination to think about other people and develop constructive attitudes toward them. Although it is not at all a traditional method, nevertheless, I think it’s perfectly valid to look at pictures of people in our meditation. They didn’t have pictures of people 2500 years ago, and I don’t think there’s a problem in adopting our modern technology to this process.

Once we’ve developed sufficient familiarity with a certain positive state of mind, we try to apply it in our daily life. That’s the whole purpose. Just thinking loving thoughts when you’re sitting on a cushion, but then getting angry with your family and colleagues, is not the desired outcome. So, we must never treat our meditation practice as an escape from life, where we just want to spend some minute calming down for ourselves. It’s also an escape if we go into some sort of fantasy-land, thinking up all sorts of incredible things. Meditation practice should be quite different; we are training to be able to deal with the problems of life.

It’s hard work, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves, or let ourselves be fooled by advertising, into thinking that it’s quick and easy. It is not easy to overcome selfishness and our other destructive emotions, because they’re based on very, very deep habits. The only way to overcome them it to change our attitudes toward things and to rid ourselves of the confusion that underlies these destructive states of mind.


Practicing Buddhism can be separated into Dharma-Lite and Real Thing Dharma. With Dharma-Lite, we want to improve the quality of this life, by equipping ourselves with the mental tools to be able to better deal with the problems that life throws at us. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Dharma-Lite, but just like Coca-Cola Lite, it’s never going to be as delicious as the real thing.

Traditionally, the lam-rim teachings don’t make reference to any of the ideas we’ve discussed in terms of Dharma-Lite, because it presumes belief in past and future lives. Still, wanting to improve our lives and become better people is a necessary first step on the road to practicing Real Thing Dharma.