We have been speaking about the graded stages of the spiritual path, where we are trying to basically broaden and expand our motivation starting from a smaller scope until it becomes full. In this way, each stage builds upon the previous one.
We also saw that there are two ways of going through this development. We can follow a Dharma-Lite version, with which we are concerned with improving this lifetime and making our lives a bit better. For most of us, this is where we need to begin. However, the traditional presentation does not even consider this level because it assumes belief in rebirth with no beginning and no end. Real Thing Dharma, like the real thing Coca-Cola, is speaking of this development within the context of rebirth.
We saw that the initial level motivation, as with all levels of motivation, has an aim, a reason for attaining that aim and an emotion behind it that drives us to achieve that goal. In the initial stage, we are looking to improve our future lives, ensuring that we continue to have a precious human rebirth so that we can continue developing ourselves to reach the greater goals. We realize that it is difficult to achieve the ultimate goals in just this lifetime. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work. The reason to try and continue having better rebirths is so we can continue on the path.
That is what we plan to do when we achieve this goal of a precious human rebirth. We are not talking about going to heaven in our next lifetime and just having a good time. Within this scope, the emotion that drives us to seek better rebirth is dread of having a worse rebirth. Within these worse states, we would have no opportunities to work on ourselves and improve. But, we have confidence that there is a way to avoid this. We discussed this in terms of safe direction, or refuge. This direction is basically to try and completely stop forever all the limitations and negative aspects that accompany our mental activity, especially in terms of our behavior. In addition to this, we want to act in constructive ways. We do this within the context of appreciating the opportunities of this precious human life that we have, and with the understanding that we will definitely lose this at the time of death. Death will come for sure and we have no idea when this will occur.
Even the Best Rebirth States Are Unsatisfactory
With the intermediate scope, we analyze even further. Even if we have so-called better rebirths, or even precious human rebirths, it’s simply unsatisfactory to continue on like that. Life goes on and its nature is that it goes up and down with no certainty of how we’re going to feel in the next moment. We might be happy now, but in the next minute we could all of a sudden feel less content, sad, or even depressed. The littlest things upset us and of course we have the recurring problems that in each life we have to go through birth and being a baby, without any control of our bodily functions. We need to learn how to walk and talk, and going through this over and over again is really boring. We’ll have to go to school, and who wants to go through that again?! We’ll need to find a partner and a job, and once again face sickness, old age, and death, not only in ourselves but in those we love as well.
Even with this precious human life, there are so many unsatisfactory things, and all of our emotional problems are still going to be there. We get angry and upset, and we’re greedy. We have great attachments to people and objects. We are naive about cause and effect and reality, and therefore we act in stupid ways, like thinking that the way we act and speak has no effect on others. We often behave as though other people don’t really exist and have feelings. That’s completely naive, isn’t it?
All of these problems will continue and we’ll have these ups and downs in any fortunate rebirth. There will also come a time when we do go from fortunate to unfortunate, better to worse rebirths and situations. It just goes on and on and on. This is what we mean by “uncontrollably recurring existence or rebirth,” the Sanskrit word for which is “samsara.”
Renunciation: Aiming for Liberation with the Determination to Be Free
With the intermediate scope, the goal we want to achieve is liberation from all of this. Our mental continuum has no beginning and no end, and we don’t want to continue in this seemingly never-ending cycle of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. When we say “seemingly never-ending,” it means that it goes on forever if we don’t do anything about it. We have to put an end to it, and experience a true stopping of samsara. Why? Because we want to stop the suffering. Even if the problems that come aren’t terribly awful, we still want to stop the more subtle problems. This is the reason for wanting to achieve liberation.
In Sanskrit, liberation is called “nirvana,” and the emotion that drives us toward this is usually called “renunciation.” This isn’t the best translation, but it basically refers to a very strong determination to be free. With renunciation, we decide that we’ve had enough of this suffering. We’re fed up with it, and on a deeper level we’re actually profoundly bored by all of it. It’s enough already: we want to be free.
Being Willing to Give Up Our Disturbing Emotions
We see that to be free, we need to get rid of the causes of all of our problems and suffering. We’re totally willing not just to give up suffering, but its causes too. We’re not talking about giving up ice cream or chocolate or anything like that. That’s a very trivial understanding of renunciation. What we become determined to do is free ourselves of our anger, greed, and attachment for it all. In the case of chocolate, we need to give up our attachment to it which is based on an exaggeration of its good qualities. For instance, we think, “This is the most wonderful and delicious thing in the world, and it’s going to make me happy, ultimately happy!” If chocolate were actually capable of doing this, then the more we ate, the happier we’d be. But no matter how much of a chocoholic we are, we’d soon be sick and never want to see chocolate again.
It’s really profound and very difficult to be sincere in our wish to give up our attachments, anger and so forth. We shouldn’t trivialize it. It’s like the joke of someone banging their head against a wall, and they’re afraid to stop because they don’t know whether it’ll be worse when they stop banging their head. This is what we are totally used to, and so we keep on banging our heads against the wall. Of course that’s an extreme example. A more common one might be of being in an unhealthy relationship with someone, but we’re hesitant to break it off because we’re afraid of being alone. Consequently, we keep up this unhealthy relationship, and are miserable.
That’s quite common, isn’t it? We don’t want to say certain things to certain people in case they abandon us. We’re not talking about any strange experiences here, just about stuff that we all experience all the time.
Is Liberation from Uncontrollably Recurring Rebirth Possible, and Am I Capable of Attaining It?
In order to achieve this goal of liberation and eventually enlightenment, we first of all need to know that it is possible and how we can achieve it. These are complicated topics and, because it’s difficult to demonstrate that they are reachable goals that we can all achieve, many people skip over them. This is a big mistake because if we aren’t actually convinced that we can achieve these goals, why would we even bother trying to work toward them? We’d just be playing a game and eventually we’d reach a point where we’d say that it’s ridiculous and give up.
We have to examine deeply the topics of Buddha-nature (the factors that allow for liberation and enlightenment), the natural purity of the mind, and so on. Are our disturbing emotions and confusion a fundamental part of our mind? If they were, it would mean that they’d be there every single moment. If they’re not, then are they temporary and can they be removed so that they never return?
To question it and debate about it is absolutely necessary. It’s definitely not something we should just accept on blind faith. In fact, the more we question it, the better, because we need to clear all of our doubts and have strong confidence in what we’re doing. Do we have to wait until we’re 100% convinced? Well, that’s not an easy question. How can we know when we’re totally convinced? It can take a very long time.
If we think it’s just garbage, then obviously we can’t work with it. But when we’re going in the direction of considering that maybe it’s all possible, then we can proceed. Thinking that it’s true, however, should be based on some sort of reason and not just blind faith, or because “my teacher said so.” Buddha himself said, “Don’t believe anything I said just out of faith for me, but test it as if you were buying gold.” We need to examine to see if it really is true.
Becoming Convinced of Rebirth: The Case of Serkong Rinpoche in Two Lifetimes
Coming to belief in rebirth as an actual fact can be a very long process. I can share my own experience, because I’ve worked with this for many years. I’ve been studying Buddhism for more than 45 years, and at some point I certainly did reach an intellectual understanding based on reason, as to why rebirth makes sense. But what really threw me over the line and convinced me on an emotional gut level was my relationship with my teacher over two lifetimes. His name was Serkong Rinpoche and he was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama; I was extremely fortunate to have been a very close disciple of his. I was with him for nine years, during which I translated for him and acted as his personal secretary. I arranged and accompanied him on all of his foreign travels, working very closely with him. He died in 1983, and was reborn and found again in the Tibetan system of tulkus.
He’s now 25 years old and I still have an extremely close relationship with him, similar to what I had with the previous one. Of course now there is a reversed dissimilarity in the age difference!
I first met the new Serkong Rinpoche when he was just four years old, and when I first walked into the room his attendants asked him, “Do you know who this is?” “Don’t be stupid, of course I know who this is,” was his answer. From the very beginning, from his side as a four-year-old, he was extremely close and affectionate toward me, much more so than with other people. It’s remained like this as he’s grown up.
At various times we’ve watched videos of his previous life, and he would say to me – and he doesn’t just talk garbage to me – “Oh, I remember saying that.” In addition to all the logic and reasoning, it was really this experience that helped me to go beyond that feeling of “well, maybe, probably…” It gave me certainty.
These things aren’t easy. Is it really possible to attain liberation? Is the nature of the mind really pure? Even if we understand it rationally, to understand it emotionally we have to go much deeper. But, slowly, we can work with it.
Confusion about Reality as the Cause of Uncontrollably Recurring Rebirth
With the intermediate level of motivation in the lam-rim, we have a very detailed explanation of the mechanism of rebirth with the 12 links of dependent arising. This is just the name of a very complicated mechanism that deals with the whole issue of karma, karmic aftermath and so on. We need to deeply understand the various types of disturbing emotions like anger and greed, how they arise, and what underlies them. In a very simple way, I refer to this underlying factor as “confusion,” where we’re confused about the effect of our behavior on others and on ourselves. More deeply, we are confused about how we actually exist, how others exist, and how everything exists.
Basically, we tend to think of things as existing independently, totally by their own power, and separate from everything else, as if they were plastic-wrapped. Even if we might think that everything is interrelated, we still think of things themselves being wrapped in plastic but connected with sticks. There are many levels of subtlety that we need to understand regarding impossible ways of existing. We need to understand precisely what is impossible, and exactly what our confusion projects onto everyone and everything.
Voidness (Emptiness): The Total Absence of Impossible Ways of Existing
What we need to understand is called “voidness” or “emptiness.” Voidness means a total absence; something is not there at all. What is not there is a real referent of these projections that are impossible. They don’t correspond to anything real.
We can use the example of Santa Claus. Say we see somebody with a long white beard dressed in a red suit, and they look like what we call “Santa Claus.” We think he is Santa Claus, but why? Well, because he looks like Santa Claus. However, the appearance of Santa Claus does not correspond to anything real, because there is no actual Santa Claus. This is what voidness is talking about, an absence of a real Santa Claus that corresponds to this person’s appearance. This doesn’t in any way deny that there is a man there, and he happens to look like Santa Claus. We are just clarifying that the way the man appears to us is deceptive. It looks like Santa Claus, but it’s not really Santa Claus, because there is no such thing.
Our mind works in this way all the time. We project all sorts of nonsense, like this person is the most beautiful person, or that person is the most horrible person, or that we are God’s gift to the world or, instead, that we’re absolutely useless. We project these things as if we or they existed like that, totally independently of everything else, as though it’s true and unchanging.
In reality, nobody exists like that. In fact, it’s impossible, because everything exists relative to other things. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always uses the example of our fingers. Is our fourth finger big or small? Well, it’s big compared to the fifth finger, but small compared to the middle finger. So from its own side, by its own power, is it big or small? There is no answer because it’s only big or small in relation to other things. It is totally dependent on other things and also dependent on our concept of what is big and what is small. I think you get the idea.
At this intermediate level, we work to get rid of this fundamental misunderstanding by gaining an understanding of voidness. It is this very confusion that causes uncontrollably recurring rebirth, because it activates karma and karmic aftermath, as explained in the complicated mechanism of the 12 links of dependent arising.
The Need for Concentration and Ethical Self-Discipline
In order to gain an understanding of voidness, we need to have concentration. To develop concentration, we need to have ethical discipline. The example given is that of cutting down a tree. Understanding is like a sharp axe, but in order to really cut down a tree we need to always hit the same spot. Continuously hitting the exact same place is like concentration. To actually pick up the axe, swing it, and hit the same place, we need strength. This strength comes from ethical self-discipline, where we refrain from acting destructively.
The intermediate scope also presents the various sets of vows that can be taken. This includes the full or novice vows of a monk or nun, or the vows of householders, male or female. A householder refers to someone that doesn’t lead a celibate life in a monastery, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a family; it refers to single people too. In ancient India, that was actually quite rare, as householders nearly always had a family. These monastic and householder vows are collectively called “vows for individual liberation,” because they are aimed for our own liberation. These vows help us to avoid different types of behavior that are likely motivated by disturbing emotions, which would interfere with our meditation practice and positive things like that.
Taking a vow is actually very important. Why? Because when we take a vow never to do something again, it frees us from indecision. For example, imagine that we’re trying to give up alcohol or cigarettes. Every time we’re with people that are drinking or smoking, we have this indecision about whether we should also have it or now say no. Even if we’re really trying to give up, every time this situation happens we’ll have to make a decision, and this can be challenging, if not stressful.
If we make a vow, then it’s final. We’ve made the decision, “I’m not going to drink. I’m not going to smoke,” or whatever it might be. Then it really doesn’t matter if everyone around us is drinking, because we’ve made up our mind. Instead of being a restriction or punishment, taking these vows can actually give us a lot of strength and liberate us from indecision, especially concerning things that would be detrimental to our achieving final liberation.
In Buddhism, there is absolutely no obligation to take any vows. We must understand this. Nobody can say that you have to take this or that vow, and nobody is saying you have to become a monk or nun and live in a monastery. However, if you’re really serious about obtaining liberation from samsara and about ridding yourself forever of anger, attachment, greed and so on, taking certain vows will definitely make it easier. Maybe we’re not ready for that right now, and it’s absolutely fine. We need to evaluate ourselves and our own situations honestly.
This is the intermediate scope. Although concentration and voidness is a part of it, they are not discussed in full yet. These topics are fully looked at in the advanced scope teachings.
The Advanced Level of Motivation: Thinking of All Others
With an advanced scope, we think in terms of not being the only one in the universe. There is everybody else, and everybody else is in exactly the same situation as we are. Everybody else is also suffering, and goes through uncontrollably recurring rebirth. We want stable happiness and to avoid suffering, and so does everyone else. We are all absolutely equal in this way. It’s not just me and a few select others, but every single being. We are all interconnected and interdependent on each other. We don’t exist independently all by ourselves. In fact, we could not survive that way.
There are some really quite sophisticated methods to expand our hearts to include everybody equally. We’ve discussed this a bit before, when talking about recognizing all other beings as having been our mothers in previous lives, and as having been incredibly kind to us. There is a Dharma-Lite version where we can see how others have the capability of being like a mother in taking care of us. However, this has limitations because it is difficult to apply that to our friend, the mosquito.
To start expanding our hearts, we begin by developing what we call “love.” The process actually starts with equanimity, where we aren’t attracted to some people, repelled by others, and indifferent to the rest. We work to become open to everybody and on this basis we recognize our interconnectedness with everyone. This can be developed through the reasoning that everyone has been our mother and been very kind to us in previous lives, or just by recognizing how everything that we enjoy and make use of comes from the work of others. Just look at the floor beneath you, the building you’re in, the water you drink, do we even think where it all came from? How did our water and food get here? It all comes from the work of others, the efforts of everyone around us. We are all equal and so it’s illogical to simply work for our own benefit, because to actually benefit ourselves, we have to benefit everybody.
On this basis, we’re able to develop love equally for everybody. This love is defined as the wish for every being to be happy and have the causes for happiness. It has nothing to do with romantic love, which is usually mixed with a great deal of attachment. When we say, “I love you,” it usually means, “I need you. Don’t ever leave me. I can’t live without you.” When we don’t get the desired attention from the other person, or they say something nasty, then it can soon change to “I don’t love you anymore.”
In Buddhism, the type of love we’re speaking about has absolutely nothing to do with how others act or what they do toward us. It is just the wish: may you be happy. It’s like all others are a part of my body: we would like all of our toes to be happy, not just some of them. It doesn’t matter what our toes do to us.
With love, we then go on to develop “compassion.” This is the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. It’s not only referring to the superficial level of suffering, the ups and downs of life, but also to the deeper types of suffering like uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Having compassion doesn’t mean that we look down on others and feel sorry for them, as in, “Oh you poor thing.” Buddhist compassion is based on respect and an understanding that it is possible for all others to be free of suffering and its causes. It’s not just a nice wish or pretty words. With compassion, we start to take responsibility to actually bring about a state free of suffering. There’s a great deal of courage here.
When we develop what is known as “great compassion,” our compassion is aimed equally at all beings and regards each of them as a concerned, loving mother would her only child. Our feeling of great compassion also contains a wish to protect each being from enduring any more suffering.
The Exceptional Resolve
The next step we have is to develop a state of mind called the “exceptional resolve.” This is a strong decision that we’re going to take responsibility not just to help others in a more superficial way or even in a deeper way. We resolve to take responsibility to help others reach the fully enlightened state of a Buddha. We don’t merely intend to do this, we've made up our minds: we're definitely going to do this.
Bodhichitta: The Aim to Attain Enlightenment for the Benefit of All Others
The final stage in this sequence is to develop what we call “bodhichitta,” the basis for which is love, compassion, and exception resolve. We realize that the only way that we can be of best help to everyone is if we ourselves attain the state of a Buddha. But, for this aspiration to be realistic, we need to understand what a Buddha is, the ways in which a Buddha can and cannot help others. Remember, a Buddha is not an all-powerful God who can snap his fingers and make everybody’s suffering go away. A Buddha can certainly show others the way and give them inspiration, but we have to do all the work ourselves. Nobody else can understand reality for us; we have to understand it ourselves.
Thus, driven by love and compassion, bodhichitta is focused on our own future enlightenment. It’s our own enlightenment, not that of Buddha Shakyamuni or enlightenment in general. Our enlightenment hasn’t happened yet, but it can and will do so on the basis of the Buddha-nature factors of our mental continuum. These factors include its basic unstained nature, and all of its potentials and possibilities. We focus on this not-yet-happening enlightenment, with the intention to attain it so that we can benefit others as much as possible. Along the way to enlightenment, we also intend to benefit others as much as possible.
This is bodhichitta. It’s an incredibly vast state and mind, and we shouldn’t mistake it for just meditating on love and compassion. It’s not just that. Love and compassion is the basis, but bodhichitta is much, much more.
The Six Far-Reaching Attitudes (The Six Perfections)
As we’ve seen, the aim within the advanced scope is to attain the state of a Buddha, so that we’re able to help others as much as possible. We’re driven by love, compassion and an exceptional resolve. But how do we actually achieve this enlightenment? This brings us to the presentation of what is know as the “six perfections,” in Sanskrit the “six paramitas,” or as I usually translate them, the “six far-reaching attitudes.” I prefer this term because they go very far, taking us all the way to the enlightened state of a Buddha. For some people, using the term “perfections” makes it sound as though they have to be perfect and yet they’re not, so they feel inadequate. That’s not the feeling this term should engender.
The first attitude we need to develop is generosity, where we give others not just material things but also advice, teachings, and freedom from fear. Even if we have nothing material to offer, we cultivate the attitude of the willingness to offer whatever is needed. Another gift we can offer is how we treat others. Because we’ll have developed equanimity, it means that others will have nothing to be afraid of from us. We are not going to get angry with others, cling to them, or want to get something from them. We’re not going to ignore others or reject them when they do something we don’t like. In addition, we are going to truly and sincerely try to help them. That’s actually an unbelievable gift that we can give someone, a tremendous gift that we develop with generosity.
The next far-reaching attitude we develop is ethical self-discipline, where we work to not act destructively, but as constructively as possible. We have the discipline to study and meditate and to actually help others. We don’t get too tired to help someone, and don’t neglect others just because we don’t feel like helping.
Patience is the ability to endure suffering and difficulties, without getting angry or upset. Working on ourselves and trying to help others is not easy, and many people aren’t at all easy to help. They give us a hard time and we need patience so that we don’t get angry. There are many methods for developing patience, like with all the other far-reaching attitudes.
The next attitude is perseverance, where we don’t give up, no matter how hard it is. In this sense, this far-reaching attitude is more like heroic courage. Not only do we not give up, but we also take joy in helping others, and are really happy to have the opportunity to help. There are many instructions on how to develop this, and they include knowing when to relax and take a break. If we push ourselves too hard, we won’t be able to help anyone. In relation to this, there are many methods for overcoming all the different types of laziness that would prevent us from continuing to work on ourselves and to work helping others.
Following this we have practices for developing mental stability. This includes more than just concentration, but also encompasses emotional stability. What we want to have is a stable state of mind that’s not going to come under the influence of mental wandering, flying off to objects that are attractive to us, or that gets dull and sleepy. Such a mind stays focused on whatever we want it to be focused on. For instance, when someone is talking to us, our minds don’t wander off to think about other things. We are also stable in the sense that we don’t have upsetting emotions that disturb the stability; we don’t get moody. It means that we’re not overly sensitive or insensitive, but balanced and stable.
This is often translated as “wisdom,” and in Sanskrit it is prajnaparamita. This final attitude refers to the ability to discriminate between how things exist and what is impossible. It’s a very specific awareness, and so the word “wisdom” is a bit too vague. We’re talking specifically about the awareness to know what is impossible, which involves an understanding of voidness (emptiness). We discriminate that certain things are ridiculous, impossible, and don’t refer to anything.
We work with these practices and methods to develop the six-far reaching attitudes, our aim, motivation, resolve and bodhichitta. All of this comprises the advanced scope of motivation.
Building upon the initial level, with the intermediate scope we realize that even if we have rebirths in better states, we’ll still suffer. We’ll still encounter problems, and have to be sick and die, and then do it all over again. And again. Becoming bored with this, we understand that throughout all of these uncontrollably recurring rebirths, there’s nothing particularly special, and so we aim for liberation from this.
When we proceed to the advanced level, we stop thinking of ourselves as the only important person – the center of the universe. We realize that everybody is exactly the same as us in wanting happiness and wanting to avoid suffering. Not only this, we see that all beings, both in previous lives and in this life, have been unbelievably kind to us. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to eat or drink, read or write, go to the shops, enjoy movies, or do anything much at all. Seeing as it would be shameful of us to ignore this kindness, we become moved by compassion and love for them, developing bodhichitta, whereby we wish to attain our own enlightenment in order to really be of ultimate benefit to others.