Introduction to the Structure of the Three Graded Levels of Motivation
“Lam-rim” is a Tibetan term often translated as the “graded path to enlightenment,” but it’s not talking about a path we walk on. “Path” here actually refers to a state of mind that acts as a pathway that leads us somewhere, in this case, all the way to enlightenment. I like to call it a “pathway mind,” and it’s what we need to develop, in a certain graded order, in order to reach enlightenment.
Traditionally, the lam-rim is divided into three major levels, which are further divided into many subdivisions. It presents progressively expansive states of mind, each of which encompasses a large mental framework. A different type of person represents each level, and each of these people has a certain motivation in life. We try to develop ourselves progressively to become these types of people with the relevant motivating mental frameworks.
I’m not using the word “motivation” here in a simplistic way, because in Buddhism the discussion of motivation refers to these motivating mental frameworks, which consist of two parts. One part is the aim that we have in life, and the other is what we Westerners normally regard as motivation, which includes the emotional background that leads us to this aim.
Each of the three levels of the lam-rim is built upon the one below and before it, and so they are cumulative. That means we first develop the first level motivation, then we have the first and second together. We don’t simply forget the first level when we reach the second. Finally, we combine all three together. It’s actually crucial for us to develop ourselves by means of cultivating the three levels in their specific order. If we skip one, we’ll lack that intended state of mind.
- With an initial scope motivation, we aim for improving our future rebirths. The motivating emotion is that we dread and in no way want to have worse rebirths.
- With an intermediate scope, we aim for liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether. The motivating emotion behind this is that we’re totally bored with all the suffering that is involved with it, and we’ve had enough. This is often translated as “renunciation,” the determination to be free from it all. This, naturally, implies the willingness to actually give up our suffering.
- With an advanced scope, motivated by love, compassion and a bodhichitta aim, our goal is full enlightenment. We think of all other beings and how they suffer and have problems just as we do, so we wish to attain enlightenment in order that we are fully able to help them overcome their suffering as well.
Personal Story of How I Studied the Lam-rim Graded Path
To introduce this topic, I’ll relate a bit of my own personal story of how I came to study the lam-rim.
I first came across this topic in 1968 when I was studying Tibetan at graduate school at Harvard University. As part of the course, we read a few pages from Tsongkhapa’s large lam-rim text, Lam-rim chen-mo, A Grand Presentation of the Graded Path to Enlightenment, but at the time I had no idea of the entire span of material covered in it. This was before any of the graded path texts were translated into English, even before Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation had been translated. Back then, it was still quite an unknown topic.
The following year I turned 24, and on a Fulbright Fellowship went to India to do research for my PhD dissertation, which I had initially planned to write on a very advanced tantra topic. Even though this was recommended to me by my professor, I soon discovered it was an absurd thing to attempt, and the Tibetan teachers in India suggested that I instead study the lam-rim. I decided to do this, and studied lam-rim for eighteen months, writing my dissertation on its oral tradition, since I didn’t even know that many written texts existed. It was all explained to me orally by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, and so I called it “the oral tradition of lam-rim.”
It was a really exciting time in India, before the wave of hippies came. Carlos Castaneda was writing his books and with that same sensibility, a few of us Westerners living in India with the Tibetans felt that we too were on a similar adventure. Like Castaneda, we were discovering some secret, special, magical teachings. It really was an adventure!
I studied the lam-rim in a very traditional way, which means that I was presented a topic or point within the lam-rim, with no idea of what was coming next. I had to focus on each point individually as it came, and digest it before getting the next piece that followed. I was told that this was a topic to be studied over and over again, and that each time you went back to the beginning, you could start to fit in what had been learned in later stages. The more we can fit the whole picture together, the clearer and easier it will be to actually develop the states of mind that are discussed.
Integrating the Teachings into a Network and into Our Lives
Based on this fact, I started developing the idea of explaining the teachings in terms of networks, because the entire lam-rim is a network in the sense that each point connects with every other point within the teaching. The network it creates is actually very complex, and the more connections we discover and make, the deeper our understanding becomes. This kind of networking pertains not just to the lam-rim, but to everything in the Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma.
The concept of integration is another aspect that helps us to understand this point. All of the teachings and points integrate together, but we need to integrate them ourselves. And it’s not that we just integrate the teachings with each other, but we actually have to integrate them with all the different aspects of ourselves and our lives. The network applies here again, because all the points in the lam-rim need to connect with all the different aspects of our lives. When we’ve successfully done this, we’ve actually integrated the Dharma within ourselves.
The necessity of integrating the Dharma within our lives is especially relevant in terms of the three levels of motivation. Before we have any of the three levels, our initial approach might be what I call “Dharma-Lite,” which I contrast with “Real Thing Dharma.” It’s just like the real thing Coca-Cola and Coke Lite, because Dharma-Lite is a version of the Dharma teachings that is understood only within the scope of improving this lifetime. We are just trying to make our present lives a little better by using the Dharma. Real Thing Dharma is the Dharma practice within the context of the three traditional scopes.
Learning and practicing Dharma-Lite is a little bit like using Buddhism as a form of therapy, and in fact, the teachings can be very helpful in this regard. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Dharma-Lite as long as we don’t confuse it with Real Thing Dharma, because it doesn’t go to the full extent of what the Dharma is talking about. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us are probably mainly focused on Dharma-Lite. Certainly, in my earlier day, that was my drink!
Dharma-Lite Version of the Lam-rim
Relying on a Spiritual Teacher
What is the Dharma-Lite version of the lam-rim? If we look at the teachings, it says that firstly, the root of the path is to rely on a spiritual teacher. In my early days, I was fortunate enough to have a spiritual teacher who’d received traditional training in Tibet before 1959 and then further training in exile – this was Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. However, it really took me many years before I understood what the word “root” meant. I had always mistaken it to mean “the beginning,” especially because that’s where we start at the beginning of the lam-rim.
But it’s not the image of a “root” as in the root of a plant, because a plant doesn’t grow from a root, it grows from a seed. The root is what a plant derives nourishment from and from which it can grow. It gives the plant stability by grounding it. Similarly, relying properly on a spiritual teacher grounds us so that we don’t go off into weird fantasy trips about the Dharma. The teachers also help to keep us growing straight so that we don’t stray from the actual teachings, much like a root anchors a plant so that it can’t be blown away. It’s from a spiritual teacher that we gain the inspiration that provides us the energy to be able to grow on the path, and of course, the one from whom we actually get teachings and explanations. Of course we can learn about Buddhism from books, but those books are written by teachers, only some of whom are Buddhists, and even less are realized masters.
When I studied at Harvard, the approach to Tibetan Buddhism was as if it were a dead subject, like the religion of ancient Egypt. But when I went to India and met great Tibetan lamas and started to study with my teacher, I realized that the Dharma is for real, and that Buddhism is alive and we have amazing living examples of the teachings. Still, the inspiration I received from my teacher was on the Dharma-Lite level, and it gave me the support for trying to practice the Dharma to improve this lifetime.
The initial scope lam-rim teachings first talk about appreciating the precious human life we have, with the advice to look at ourselves. So, I examined myself and noted that I was pretty fortunate to have had and still have so many opportunities to study with great teachers and masters. The focus then turns to death and impermanence, to make us realize that the opportunities we have don’t last forever. I could certainly relate to that at the time, and I very much wanted to use my abilities. I was young and had the strength and intelligence and so on with which to grow. I could relate to this easily.
Then, the teachings talk about the worse rebirth states, like the hell realms, that could follow in future lifetimes. Now, I approached it like an anthropologist studying folklore, thinking, “Oh, that’s interesting that this is what they believe.” Then I turned the page to go on to something more relevant for me.
After this, we have the teachings on refuge, and eventually I realized that this is not a passive experience. In Buddhism there is no “Save me, save me!” mentality. Instead, we have to put a safe direction into our own lives. I knew that we follow the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and even though I had a long list of their qualities, I didn’t really understand what it all meant. I knew it was more than just wearing a red string around my neck, but I didn’t understand the deep ramifications. Still, I took refuge in this direction.
Then the lam-rim presents the teachings on karma, which is basically about avoiding destructive behavior. Although it was presented in terms of avoiding destructive behavior in order to avoid worse rebirths in the future, this wasn’t a strong selling point. Still, it just made sense to be a nice person. Don’t hurt others, don’t act destructively, and don’t act out of anger, greed and so on. This was all fine and I could accept it all, because I could also see how it would make me happier in this life. That was a perfect Dharma-Lite version of the initial scope. Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize that that was Dharma-Lite, and I really thought that this was exactly what the teachings were talking about.
The intermediate scope teachings start with descriptions of the sufferings of the better rebirth states, as well as of the general sufferings of samsara. Again, the part about god realms seemed like another lesson in anthropology, but the descriptions of the sufferings of samsara were far more relevant to me at that time. It detailed how we’re always frustrated, and how we never really get what we want. It was quite wonderful and profound to think about.
The intermediate scope then goes on to give an analysis of all the mental factors and disturbing emotions, and it explains how these emotions cause our problems. I really considered this to be the most interesting part of the lam-rim discussion, how various emotional problems and difficulties arise, their causes, the mental factors involved, and how we actually develop problems. This was so great, and was far better than any course in psychology I’d ever taken. I didn’t really understand that it was actually saying that this is what drives uncontrollably recurring rebirth, but I understood it on a Dharma-Lite level, considering that this was how various psychological problems arose in my own life. It was very helpful.
Next in the lam-rim presentation comes the twelve links of dependent arising, which is very complicated. It details very straightforwardly how rebirth works, but it didn’t really sink in and I tried to understand it more in terms of this life, because back then it was hard to take future lives and rebirth seriously. It is simply not part of our cultural tradition and I certainly didn’t grow up with it. But I was open-minded and I didn’t reject the idea, and I sort of gave it the benefit of the doubt. If what followed from it made sense and was helpful, then maybe rebirth was possible and actually existed. But honestly, I didn’t know.
After this comes renunciation, and I understood it to be more than the simplistic level of giving everything up and going to live in a cave. Renunciation is the determination to be free of samsara and from suffering. I was definitely willing to give up suffering and the problems I had at that age, because like any other young person I had a few emotional problems. I certainly wanted to be free of the causes of my problems, but I probably understood it on quite a superficial level, like thinking how wonderful it would be never to get angry or be greedy again. Did that mean that when my favorite food was on the table, I was willing to give up my greedy desire to eat as much of it as possible? Well, that’s another question!
Following renunciation, the next topic delves into the three higher trainings as the way to get free of samsara, which involves training in higher ethical discipline, concentration, and wisdom or discriminating awareness. The last bit is the wisdom to discriminate reality from fantasy, and I could relate to this without difficulty.
This basically describes the intermediate scope as I understood it, on a Dharma-Lite level of wanting to get rid of my emotional problems. Buddhism explained very nicely how these problems arose, and it provided good directions on how to overcome them.
With the advanced scope, I first learned about how we all need to have equanimity for everyone, which fit in very nicely with the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the day. Everyone’s equal, so equanimity was just fine with me. But extending this to mosquitoes and cockroaches felt like a whole different matter!
Actually, I like to call India the “Land of Insects,” and I always used to joke about a travel advertisement for India where it would say, “If you like insects, you’ll love India!” As a big fan of science fiction, especially Star Trek, I would view these insects like aliens from another world. If I met aliens and they had six legs and wings and whatever, how terrible it would be to just want to step on them. In that way I tried to make a little bit of peace with the insects, as long as they were not in my bedroom!
If they came into my bedroom, I called them “unacceptable life forms” and they had to leave. By this time I became quite proficient at removing them by capturing them in a cup and placing a sheet of paper underneath, and throwing them out. I even learned from my Tibetan friends how to catch a fly in mid air, which they used to do for fun. They’d catch a fly and shake it about and let it go, and roar with laughter as the dizzy fly flew in a very mixed-up way. I wasn’t so advanced; I would just take the fly outside.
After the introduction of equanimity, the lam-rim directs us to think of everyone as having been our mother. This might be pretty weird, but I had a pretty good relationship with my mother, so it wasn’t too difficult. It continued through the various stages and talks about love, compassion, and the wish for everybody to be happy and not be unhappy. Love was the whole theme of the hippie era, so this was fine. The idea of taking responsibility to help others also seemed fine to me.
I learned that the best way to take responsibility to help others is to become a Buddha, but I didn’t really know what that meant. There was a list of the qualities representing “the best,” so the idea was to aim for the best. Yes, becoming a Buddha could probably help people more than going on a civil rights march. That’s not putting those marches down as useless, but here we have a much larger vision of how we can help. At that time, I probably mixed up a little bit the images of a Buddha and of Superman!
Then we have the teachings on the six perfections, what I now call the “far-reaching attitudes,” as the way to become a Buddha. All of this made very good sense; be generous, act ethically, be patient, have perseverance, who could fault all of this? It’s perfect. The teachings on concentration were introduced in a very detailed manner, so detailed that it was amazing. It led on to the teachings on voidness (emptiness), which of course are very difficult to comprehend, but which were fascinating and something I wanted to explore more deeply. I saw that the more deeply I explored voidness, the more I could rid myself of fantasies about how I and others exist.
I loved the bodhisattva vows because they clearly pointed out all the things to avoid that cause difficulties in relating to others. I thought that was great because I actually had real difficulties in relating to others, and so it was like a perfect guidebook of what to avoid. I understood bodhichitta to be the aim to become a Buddha to help everyone, but at the time it was nothing more profound than that, and it seemed simple enough. On this basis, with this type of understanding going through the advanced level of lam-rim, I was going to try and help everyone. I would love everybody because we’re all equal, and I was going to try and become the best that I can be – a Buddha.
Following this, I had a little introduction to tantra, where it said we could do this in this lifetime. I felt that this confirmed that I didn’t really need to think so much about future lives and stuff, because it’s all in this lifetime. This is perfect Dharma-Lite and I think it’s how many of us end up after initially studying the lam-rim. We often think that studying deeply means learning the list of eight this and ten that, and if we learn it we’ve really deepened our understanding. It’s good to learn all of these details, but we’ll still be on the level of Dharma-Lite.
The Four Noble Truths
I stayed in India for two years studying the Dharma, then went back to America just to hand in my dissertation. I then returned to India and had my home there for 27 years more, and studied more and started to put it all together in my meditation, as my teachers had advised. It was always emphasized that the way Buddha taught was really the best way for communicating the Dharma. How did he teach? Buddha taught the four noble truths and taught in the structure of the four noble truths. It’s best not to be so arrogant as to think that we can do better than Buddha, so I tried to follow the advice and put the lam-rim together with the four noble truths.
You’re probably familiar with the four noble truths, but briefly, they are truths that are seen to be true by aryas, or “noble ones,” who have non-conceptual cognition of voidness. They are true facts; however, those who haven’t seen reality non-conceptually might not consider them as true.
The first noble truth is that there is suffering. Buddha pointed out different levels of problems that we all face in life, and these truly are sufferings. Regular people, however, don’t usually consider some of the levels, like our ordinary happiness, to be a problem. But if you look more deeply, these truly are forms of suffering because with ordinary happiness we never have enough, it’s never satisfying, and it never lasts.
Secondly, Buddha pointed out that the cause of our suffering is our unawareness and confusion about reality, and he said these truly are the causes. We might not ordinarily make this connection. In the third noble truth, he pointed out that it’s possible to have a true stopping of our suffering, and this is usually translated as a “cessation.” Basically, suffering can stop forever. We might not think it’s possible that there can be a true stopping of suffering, but it really is true. Lastly, with the fourth noble truth, Buddha explained the pathway mind that if we follow and develop, will truly get rid of suffering and its causes. It truly will be able to bring about a true stopping of it all. These are the four noble truths in simple form.
The Three Scopes of “Real Thing” Lam-rim in Terms of the Four Noble Truths
It can be quite helpful to look at the three scopes of “Real Thing” lam-rim in terms of the four noble truths. Here, true suffering would be the suffering of the worse rebirth states. There are three types of true suffering. The first is the suffering of suffering, that is, general unhappiness. This unhappiness can accompany any sensory cognition such as seeing, hearing, or feeling pain; or, it can accompany a mental state. In the context of the initial lam-rim scope, however, this large encompassing suffering of suffering is exemplified by the suffering of the lower states. The cause of the suffering of such rebirths is acting destructively, and the true stopping of it would be to never again have worse rebirths, but only have better rebirths. The true pathway that leads to this is refuge, or putting a safe direction in our life. In addition, the pathway mind would be to follow the Dharma teachings and the actual examples of Buddha and the arya Sangha in avoiding destructive behavior.
This integrates the initial scope with the four noble truths. We study and learn that the true cause of disturbing emotions and compulsive destructive behavior is the unawareness of the laws of karma – behavioral cause and effect – underlying it. Understanding that, we exercise self-control when we feel like acting under the influence of anger, greed, or whatever, and don’t act it out. For example, I might still get angry with someone, but I’ll shut my mouth and not yell or say something nasty, because I understand that if I do, it’ll just cause further unhappiness and problems.
This is a deeper understanding of the initial scope than the Dharma-Lite version.
Next we have the intermediate scope, which deals with the second two types of suffering that Buddha pointed out. The suffering of change is about our ordinary type of happiness that, like unhappiness, also accompanies either sense perception or a mental state. It’s a problem because it never lasts and is never really satisfying. It changes into unhappiness and we never know when this will happen. A simple example is when we’re eating our favorite food. If this were truly happiness, then the more we ate, the happier we would become. But obviously, once we reach a certain point, the more we eat just makes us sick and unhappy.
More important is the third type of true suffering presented on the intermediate scope, which we call “all-pervasively affecting suffering.” It’s a bit of an awkward expression in English, but it refers to every moment of our existence, affecting everything we experience, and it actually brings on the first two types of suffering.
This all-pervasively affecting suffering actually points to the uncontrollably recurring aggregate factors of our experience – our five aggregates in each moment of our experience. Simply put, it’s talking about our body and mind, and all the various, constantly changing mental factors and so on that make up each moment of our experience. Their continuity goes on from moment to moment, not just in this lifetime, but also throughout all lifetimes. They come from our disturbing emotions and the karma built up by acting upon them. Our minds continue to contain more disturbing emotions and karma, which themselves perpetuate even more moments of our so-called “tainted aggregates.”
These aggregate factors – our body and mind – form the basis and context within which we experience the first two types of suffering: unhappiness and ordinary happiness. What we feel each moment goes up and down all the time, constantly fluctuating between happiness and unhappiness. It recurs and obviously we never have certainty that we’re going to feel happy or unhappy in the next moments. That’s true suffering on the intermediate level.
As mentioned, the cause of this is disturbing emotions and the karma built up by them, and on a deeper level, the true cause is our unawareness of how we exist, how others exist, and how everything exists. This is often translated as “ignorance” but I don’t like this term because it implies that we’re somehow stupid. There are two interpretations of what the word means. We are unaware either in the sense that we simply don’t know how we exist, or we understand it in a reverse way, but it certainly doesn’t mean that we’re stupid. It is the true cause of our uncontrollably recurring rebirth, our “samsara.” This is precisely what samsara means. The true stopping of it would be liberation and the true pathway to that would be the three higher trainings in higher ethical discipline, higher concentration, and higher discriminating awareness.
That’s the intermediate scope presented within the structure of the four noble truths.
In the advanced scope, the true suffering referred to is the uncontrollably recurring rebirth of not just me, but of everybody. All three types of suffering occur for everybody. We would have to include here as well my inability to help them overcome this. Of course, the true causes of everybody else’s suffering is the same as the true causes of my own, as explained on the intermediate level. Thinking of my own inability to help others, on one level we can identify the true cause of it as my self-centered concern only about myself. Looking more deeply, we could have included that self-centeredness on the intermediate level in terms of a disturbing emotion.
I must say that it’s quite difficult to understand how we could still have self-centered concern for only ourselves if we actually have rid ourselves of our disturbing emotions. If we’ve gotten rid of attachment to ourselves and naivety about others, how could we still be self-centered? Even if we say, “I’m only concerned just about myself because I don’t think I can really help everybody or become a Buddha,” we could say that this is a type of naivety. If we think in this manner, only concerned with self-liberation, then we could argue that this is a form of naivety about Buddha-nature.
In any case, we can put self-concern as the true cause, and at this point, we have to include the fact that our mind makes things appear in impossible ways. Our mind makes things appear as though they were truly established, truly existing as self-established from their own side, independent of anything else. This might seem like jargon, so in simple words, our mind makes thing appear as if they existed by themselves, encapsulated in plastic. Because of this, we can’t see the interconnectedness of everything, particularly in terms of cause and effect. So, we can’t see the causes of why somebody is the way they are now, and why they have the problems they have now. We can’t foresee all of the effects that can come from teaching the person. All of this is because when we look at the person, what appears to us is just the person in front of our eyes and we think that’s it. We think they exist there all by themselves, independently of all their relationships and all the causes and conditions. This is the cause of our inability to help everybody.
The true stopping of this would be the omniscient state of a Buddha, because a Buddha is able to see the interconnectedness of everything, and therefore knows what the problems really are with each person, what factors have gone into it, and what would be the best way to help. The true pathway leading to this is an understanding of voidness, with both the force of renunciation and bodhichitta behind it. We need both of these. Of course, to develop bodhichitta we need to develop equanimity, love, compassion, and the six far-reaching attitudes, the so-called “six perfections,” all of which we find in the advanced scope.
Becoming Convinced That Enlightenment Is Possible
We could think, “Pretty clever, now I’ve put together the four noble truths with the three scopes of motivation.” But, have we really gone beyond Dharma-Lite? As beginners, probably not, at least not on an emotional level. We’ve seen how Dharma-Lite can work in this lifetime, but in order to be able to integrate the three levels of motivating mental frameworks into our lives so that we are really practicing Real Thing Dharma, we need to go back to our definition of motivation.
We said that there are two aspects to motivation. There’s an aim, the goal we want to reach, and then along with this there is the emotion that drives us to reach this goal. To aim for a goal, it’s imperative that if it’s going to be sincere, we not only need to have a clear idea of what the goal actually is and means, but we need to be firmly convinced that it’s possible to achieve it. We shouldn’t think that Buddha could achieve it, but we can’t. We need to be convinced that not only has it been achieved before, but that we really can too.
When we’re truly convinced that it’s possible to achieve this goal, then we can sincerely aim for it. Otherwise, it’s just like a game or wishful thinking, and not so stable. Nagarjuna pointed this out in his Commentary on Bodhichitta (Skt. Bodhichitta-vivarana), where he states that those of sharp intelligence would develop deepest bodhichitta, the understanding of voidness, first. After this, they would develop relative bodhichitta, where they aim for enlightenment to benefit others. This is because when we develop an understanding of voidness, we’ll be convinced that liberation and enlightenment are possible. On this basis we can develop relative bodhichitta, the wish to achieve that liberation and enlightenment in order to benefit others. This approach applies to those of the sharpest capacity.
For those with a more ordinary capacity, the order is reversed, and we first have to develop relative bodhichitta, the wish to achieve enlightenment for the sake of others. Then, gradually we’ll develop deepest bodhichitta, an understanding of voidness as the way to actually bring about liberation or enlightenment. But conviction that the goal is achievable is far stronger than presuming it’s possible, because others have done it. Nagarjuna’s Commentary on Bodhichitta, however, is explained from the viewpoint of those with the sharpest intelligence, which is why he starts with voidness first.
Three Facts We Need Conviction In
To really be able to practice Real Thing Dharma, we need, in fact, conviction in three points. On the initial level, we need to become convinced that rebirth exists, which is to understand that the mental continuum we have has no beginning and no end. Based on that conviction, we aim for better future rebirths. This mental continuum is going to continue on, we’re totally convinced of it, and we certainly don’t want to experience the sufferings of the worse rebirth states and be blocked from making further spiritual progress for a very long time.
On the intermediate scope, we first of all need to be totally convinced that liberation is possible, which means an understanding that there can be a true stopping of unawareness, disturbing emotions and karma. This means conviction in the third noble truth. To gain that, we need to be convinced of the natural purity of our mental continuum, that by its nature is not stained by unawareness, disturbing emotions and so on.
On the advanced level, we need to be convinced that enlightenment is possible. In other words, that it’s possible to get rid of our deceptive appearance-making. This is also a fleeting stain. It’s not part of the nature of the mind to make appearances of impossible ways of existing. The mental continuum is pure of that as well.
Becoming Encouraged by Understanding Buddha-Nature
In order to really internalize and integrate the three scopes on a Real Thing Dharma level, this is what we need to work on. We need a strong conviction that the three lam-rim goals are possible to attain, and that we ourselves can attain them. When you think about it, we’ve been discussing the teachings on Buddha-nature – the factors that every mental continuum contains that enable enlightenment. These include the positive qualities of the mind, our positive force and understandings, and the natural unstained purity of the mind.
Gampopa starts out with this in his Jewel Ornament of Liberation, because Buddha-nature is what enables this whole process. He indicates the importance of understanding this at the beginning in order to really develop on a sincere level all the other pathways of mind that follow. Understanding Buddha-nature certainly gives us encouragement, so we need to be convinced of it. This is what Nagarjuna was talking about, and notably, the conduit of the inspiration is, of course, the guru, our spiritual teacher.
The lam-rim teachings provide us with a map, showing us how to get from where we are to full enlightenment, in gradual steps. For most of us, before we even take that first step, will start on a Dharma-Lite level, where we’re looking to use the Buddhist teachings to improve this present life.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, because it’s only natural for us to want to improve our lives. However, we shouldn’t confuse Dharma-Lite with Real Thing Dharma, which at its minimum is concerned with the welfare of our future lives.
Starting from this base of Real Thing Dharma, we can slowly work through the steps as they’re set out, until we become a Buddha and can really benefit others.