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Home > eBooks > Unpublished Manuscripts > A Commentary on Attitude-Training Like the Rays of the Sun > Day Two: The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma

A Commentary on Attitude-Training Like the Rays of the Sun

(Blo-sbyong nyi-ma’i ‘od)
by Namkapel (Nam-mkha’ dpal)
His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
to an audience with many new arrivals from Tibet
translated by Alexander Berzin
Dharamsala, India, May 9 – 15, 1985

Full transcript edited by Pauline Yeats and Alexander Berzin
with clarifications indicated in violet between square brackets

Abridged, edited version by Jeremy Russell published originally as Namkapel. “The Mind-Training Like the Rays of the Sun:
A Commentary by Tenzin Gyatso,
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.”
Chö-Yang (Dharamsala, India), vol. 1, no. 1 (spring 1986)

Day Two: The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma

Reaffirming the Motivation

We need to have a proper motivation for listening to the teachings; otherwise we will miss an opportunity to build up a great deal of positive force and to incorporate this teaching in our mental continuum. We try not to be motivated by wanting things to improve in this lifetime, or to improve our future lifetimes, or even by wanting to gain liberation just for ourselves. Rather, we try to have the full motivation of the bodhichitta aim, wishing to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. Think, “I’m not listening to this just for my own sake or for my own liberation. I’m opening my heart to all beings out of a wish to benefit them and to achieve enlightenment for their sakes.” And, “I’m definitely going to try to integrate all these teachings with my mental continuum and to recognize all the untamed states of mind that I have. Gradually, I’m going to correct all of these as much as is possible.”

If we think of these teachings as merely theoretical, they’re not going to be of much benefit. Instead, if we compare them to our states of mind and attitudes, and think, “I’m definitely going to improve myself; I’m really going to try to recognize where my deficiencies lie and apply myself to correcting them,” this will definitely be of much greater benefit and a much deeper experience.

Basic Structure of the Text

The training of our attitudes is in seven points, the first of which concerns the preliminary practices. In Tibetan, we have the terms “supporting structure” and “things supported by it.” It is like a house and the furnishings and people inside. Likewise, in a mandala, the mandala palace is the supporting structure and the figures inside are what are supported by it. Here, the preliminaries are like the mandala palace and the main teachings are like the deity figures supported by them. So don’t think that the preliminaries are just something at the beginning, which we can then forget about later. They are the foundation that supports all the rest of the actual teachings and always remain there. Here, the main actual teaching is the development of bodhichitta. This is the second of the seven points.

There are conventional bodhichitta (relative bodhichitta) and deepest bodhichitta (ultimate bodhichitta). Conventional bodhichitta is a mind or heart aimed at the conventional (relative, superficial, surface, apparent) truth of all beings and enlightenment; while deepest bodhichitta is a mind aimed at their deepest truth, their voidness or total absence of impossible ways of existing. These are the two mental states and attitudes toward life that we are definitely going to develop on our mental continuums.

As we are going to practice these two bodhichittas throughout our lives, we will meet with different circumstances, sometimes conducive, sometimes not. If we don’t have courage, then when we meet with circumstances that are not conducive, we might get discouraged and think of just giving up. At that time, it is necessary to have very firm and stable minds and hearts, so that we can cope with the situation. We need to think and feel, “Well, such bad circumstances as these happen in life. What to expect of samsara? But I can handle them. They are no big deal, no big danger.” If our minds are stable like that, we can handle any difficult circumstances that may come up. We never get daunted. If we can take all these negative and nonconducive circumstances and turn them into a pathway, they become part of our spiritual path. Then, of course, there is no danger from them; they can’t harm us and we become very stable in our practice. This is an extremely beneficial and extensive method.

The other five of the seven points are:

  • transforming adverse circumstances into a path to enlightenment,

  • condensation of the practice in one lifetime,

  • the measure of having trained our attitudes,

  • the close-bonding practices for attitude-training,

  • the points to train in for attitude-training.

With this, we arrive at the root text of the Seven-Point Attitude-Training. As a basic structure for these attitude-training teachings, and as part of the preliminaries, we will first deal with the precious human rebirth, then death and impermanence, behavioral cause and effect, and then the problems and suffering of samsara. These are the four points of the preliminaries that form the supporting basis for training our attitudes. They are commonly known as the “four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma.”

One attitude-training text by Panchen Yeshey-gyeltsen presents the preliminaries in the Kadam style, discussing the suffering of the worse rebirth states and then, having thought about them, taking a safe direction in life. In this style, safe direction is taken as part of the discussion of the various states of rebirth. By various methods such as this, we can include all the lam-rim teachings on the graded stages of the path within the outline of these four preliminaries.

There are several different presentations and ways to order the points of the lam-rim. I think it all depends on the varied dispositions of the disciples. For instance, in The Three Principal Aspects of the Path (Lam-gtso rnam-gsum), Tsongkhapa presents two levels of renunciation: definitely turning away from complete involvement with this life and then definitely turning away from complete involvement with benefiting future lives. In his greater lam-rim texts, however, Tsongkhapa presents three levels of motivation, one of which is renunciation, and does not speak of two levels of renunciation.

[See: The Three Principal Aspects of the Path.]

Thus, although in some of the lam-rims thinking of the suffering of the worse rebirth states brings us immediately to taking safe direction, here when we think of the different points, we are brought directly to bodhichitta. We think of the precious human rebirth and that leads us straight to bodhichitta. Then we think of death and impermanence and that too takes us straight to the development of bodhichitta. The presentation of all the various sufferings in general and the specific sufferings of the different realms can also bring us to the realization of bodhichitta. This is a special way of presenting the various lam-rim points in attitude-training texts.

The outline refers to practice during the meditation session and between sessions. This means that we don’t engage in Dharma practice only when we are sitting cross-legged and reciting various prayers and then the rest of the time forget about it and throw it away. We do sustained practice both during our formal sitting and in-between.

It’s like charging a battery. When actually sitting in our sessions, we make our minds, hearts, and attitudes clearer and stronger so that we can use them later on, just as we charge a battery so that we can use it later. And just as there is the time when we charge the battery and the time later when we use its electric energy, there is the time when we do our actual meditation sessions, building up our charge of energy, and then the time when we use it during our daily lives. It’s not that we are religious during our meditation sessions and then act totally irreligiously in between; we need to be consistent. We need to try to bring our minds, on all different levels, to behave in accord with the teachings.

Everybody, of course, wants to be happy and everybody tries to follow different methods to bring about that happiness. And of course, everybody needs the various necessities of life. But, when we try to bring about this happiness through methods that are unruly and that will hurt others, or we try to take advantage of others, these are the very things we are trying to stop and get rid of. We need to think about the various things we are doing. If we are being very arrogant and exploiting people, and deceiving people in order to gain some profit for ourselves, we need to think, “Well, what is really the benefit of this in the long run? Is it going to bring me the happiness that I want? If I gain this profit by cheating and deceiving others, is it really going to help me in the long run?” In this way become convinced: “If I use dishonest methods like these, it’s going to work against me. This is because if people act very arrogantly, trying to take advantage of others, everybody is going to consider them very vulgar types of persons. Nobody is going to want to be on their side or will agree with what they’re doing.” This is quite clear, isn’t it? So, we can see the disadvantages there are in being a cheating, deceitful person.

After we’ve finished our sessions and we go out and meet people, we might have an urge to act arrogantly or deceitfully. Then we need to be mindful of what we have been thinking about during our sessions, and think “Oh, no! If I act in a deceitful way toward this person and try to cheat him, I’ve been seeing in my meditation sessions that this is no good. It’s of no benefit to anybody,” and so we restrain ourselves. At that time, we restrain ourselves from acting in a negative or destructive way: that is what the actual practice is in between sessions. That is when we actually use the good habits we’ve been building up during our meditation sessions. If we act very carefully and integrate the meditation and in-between sessions well with each other, then we will find that the meditation will serve to improve our behavior between sessions, and our in-between sessions’ activities will contribute to improving our meditations. Day by day, we’ll find some improvement.

We need to examine our behavior. If we drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, we need to try to improve ourselves and get rid of these negative activities that are so self-destructive. Whenever we see a cigarette, if we think of its disadvantages, we will put it aside. We will decide to cut down to only one or two cigarettes a day and eventually reach a point when, from smoking less and less, we become disgusted even by the smell of cigarette smoke. If we think about it, smoking is a great waste of time and money. All the money we spend on it and the time wasted talking about it or, when we meet somebody who’s smoking, lighting up with the person and gossiping – think what a waste. At all levels, the habit of smoking is pointless.

The same goes for drinking alcohol, as well as for all sorts of obnoxious personality traits that we might have, such as being overbearing, arrogant, or deceitful. Try to decrease them as much as possible and eventually get rid of them by seeing them as negative habits.

The Procedures before Starting a Meditation Session

At the beginning of the actual meditation session it is very important to examine our motivation of why we are meditating. We need to reaffirm the safe direction we are taking in our lives, as indicated by the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and we need to reaffirm our bodhichitta aim. We do this while visualizing the objects of safe direction and so forth, in accordance with the lineage of Lama Serlingpa. So first we examine and reaffirm our motivations, and then, in a proper place for meditation, we prepare our meditation seat.

Cleaning the Place for Meditation

First, we need to clean the place where we’ll be meditating. This makes a big difference in the clarity of our minds, the level of respect we feel and show to the objects of our meditation, and also it affects our health. It is very important to keep our homes and our rooms clean, and to set up some sort of offering arrangement. As we sweep and clean, various thoughts can help, such as, “While I’m cleaning this floor, I’m cleaning my mind.” We need not think that we are just making it nice for ourselves, but we are doing it to show respect for the objects of refuge and the practice.

Setting Up an Altar and Arranging Offerings

When we set up our altars and offerings, we are not doing it to impress others, but to help in the process of improving ourselves in order to benefit all sentient beings, meaning all limited beings. We need to have humble altars, with representations of the body, speech and mind of the Buddhas. If we have gold and silver offering bowls, then half our minds will be on the value of these precious objects and only half of it on the practice.

There is a famous story of Geshe Benkungyel, who lived in a cave doing meditation. Once when his teacher was coming to visit, he put up very special offerings. Then he examined his motivation and saw that he was only doing this so everybody would say what a great practitioner he was. Realizing this, he threw ashes all over his offerings. When his teacher came, he said that Geshe Benkungyel had thrown ashes in the face of the eight transitory things in life and had made a very pure offering.

[See: Dispelling Discomfort at the Eight Transitory Things in Life.]

Before becoming a great Dharma practitioner, Geshe Benkungyel was a notorious thief. After he had become a practitioner, he went one day to the house of a patron who had set up some offerings and then gone outside. Because of his instincts as a thief, Geshe Benkungyel found his hand reaching out to steal the objects. He immediately grabbed his hand and called out, “Come quickly, I’ve caught a thief.”

This is exactly how we need to practice the Dharma. When we catch ourselves yielding to a negative tendency, we need to catch ourselves and stop acting in that way. The main point of Dharma is taking preventive measures and as soon as we see ourselves starting to do something we know is improper, we stop ourselves from doing it. So if you can remember, “His Holiness has said during this discourse not to do something like this,” then when you catch yourself doing it, you can stop yourself.

It’s like the example of drinking, which is the root and cause of so much trouble, although of course it’s very delicious. If we think, “I couldn’t care less,” we’ll become callused and build up a habit of doing negative things and being insensitive. This is because when we get drunk, we act in such a way that we are not even aware of what we’re doing. Then later, when people say, “Oh, when you were drunk, you spoke so badly, told outrageous lies, and acted in such an outrageous manner, and now you don’t even remember any of that,” it’s extremely embarrassing. We make an absolute fool of ourselves when we’re drunk.

The main point of Dharma is taking preventive measures and as soon as we see ourselves starting to do something wrong or improper, we need to stop or prevent ourselves from doing it. We need to apply everything we know, like the very relevant example of Geshe Benkungyel. His Dharma practice was very clear and obvious: he would immediately and quite dramatically stop himself from acting in any negative ways.

The main point in the Dharma is always to work on improving internal qualities, not on external improvement. So, concerning the offerings we make, they needn’t be externally so impressive that we develop pride over them. Milarepa made the best offerings: he didn’t have anything external to give, but he gave his heart totally to Dharma practice.

We needn’t go out of our way to make our altars ostentatious by buying very expensive images; that’s completely missing the point. Dharma is to improve our minds, not to put on a big external show. If we acquire various images naturally through gifts and so forth, of course we can set them out. The nicer the offering is, the more beneficial it is. But we don’t go out of our way to make a big ostentatious show just to impress people – especially with Tibetan thangka paintings, just getting them as souvenirs to impress people. If we do buy thangkas, however, try to get only those that have the proper proportions and standard features. If we buy something that does not accord with tradition, then if somebody looks at it and says, “This Buddha image is very bad,” then we are building up negative force and potential because of being the cause for such words. So we need to be very particular to have thangkas and images that are correct and traditional. But we don’t just get them to impress people. If our preparations and arrangements are very simple, we can just put up a picture of our spiritual mentor. That will make our minds feel very happy and we’ll be showing respect.

Sitting with the Proper Posture

We then need to sit on proper seats, in the proper posture. If we can sit in the full lotus or vajra position, this is best. But if this is uncomfortable, we can just sit cross-legged, the usual way that most of us sit. If that’s uncomfortable too, we can sit in a chair. The main point is to work on our minds, not necessarily on our bodies. But if we can sit cross-legged, that’s much better.

Don’t rock back and forth or lean right and left; but rather sit up straight and solidly. Of course, if we’re not feeling well, there are exceptions; but basically we need to sit straight and not fidget around. Especially when we are doing our practices, we need to sit up very straight and not move. If we’re moving, rocking back and forth while trying to concentrate, the rocking motion will cause a rocking motion in our minds and we’ll have more mental wandering. Often we find that when we’re reciting texts from memory, we rock back and forth. Most of us Tibetans do this, but it’s not exclusive to us. We find that many Muslims do this as well when they recite from the Koran. When foreigners come and see Tibetans reciting things, they find it very strange, because some are rocking forwards and backwards, while some are going from side to side.

About fifteen years ago there was a geshe who was a great yogi and had lived in the mountains of Tibet. When he came out to India, he requested me to give some initiations. I was terribly impressed: he didn’t move even a bit during the entire empowerment. If we have the ability, we need to have this kind of posture. It comes from the strength of absorbed concentration.

If we wear glasses, we can examine for ourselves whether it makes any difference to wear them or not during meditation. If I wear my glasses, I have greater clarity; but when my glasses are off, I have greater stability and placement of my mind. Look into this and see what difference it makes.

Taking Safe Direction and Reaffirming Our Motivation

Next, we examine our states of mind and, from a particularly positive state of mind, take strong safe direction and reaffirm our bodhichitta aim. Think, “I’m giving a strong, safe direction to my life, with refuge. I’m dedicating my heart to the bodhichitta aim, to enlightenment, to helping all beings, and I’m going to do this practice to build up strong positive force to reach that goal.”

As it’s helpful to have some sort of visual aid, we visualize the objects of safe direction, which can be either a very elaborate, bountiful field, or just simply a figure of the Buddha, and imagine that we are getting waves of inspiration from them. A visual aid to make receiving the inspiration graphic helps to create a stronger feeling.

The actual safe direction is indicated by the true stoppings (true cessations) and the true pathways of mind (true paths) on the mental continuums of aryas, highly realized beings. Whether or not we are able to visualize clearly the bountiful field, we need to keep in mind what are the main things that provide a safe direction in life: true stoppings and true pathway minds. We can visualize various types of fields for building up positive force (fields of merit), but the main thing is to have is a very strong feeling of having a safe direction that we are going in; not just to say the words, but to have strong confident belief in what is fact. The facts are that the Three Precious and Rare Gems indicate the safest direction to take in life and we fully intend to continue going in that direction.

In Tibet, we follow a combination of Hinayana, Sutra Mahayana, and Tantrayana. In terms of tantra, when we take safe direction, we need to think that we are also receiving all the empowerments from the objects of safe direction. That is why we start the refuge formula with: “I take safe direction from the Lamas, from the Gurus.” This because we imagine we are receiving empowerment from them. Our spiritual teachers are the ones who actually take us by the hand, hold us up, and take us along the path in the safe and sound direction indicated by the Triple Gem. So, we start with the spiritual mentor with whom we actually have a personal involvement and who shows us the safe direction of refuge, and then take safe direction from the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Then to distinguish our practice as Mahayana, we reaffirm our bodhichitta aim.

Offering the Seven-Limb Prayer

So we start with safe direction, next the bodhichitta aim, and then visualize the bountiful field and offer the seven-limb prayer: prostrations, offerings, and so forth. There are many different ways of doing this prayer in connection with sutra practice and in connection with tantra practice. We can also offer the seven-limb prayer in connection with the various types of guru-yoga and the various Buddha-figures (deities, yidams). The Gelug tradition, for example, offers them in the context of Hundreds of Deities of Tushita (dGa’-ldan lha rgya-ma), in which the main figure visualized is Tsongkhapa.

[See: Seven-Limb Prayer and Hundreds of Deities of Tushita.]

Alternatively, we can visualize simply our own spiritual mentor or the Buddha, or we can do the practice in the context of one of the six-session yogas: there are many ways of doing it. Some of the verses used in the seven-limb offering come from sutras dealing with bodhisattva behavior, particularly from The Flower Garland Sutra (mDo Phal-cher, Skt. Avatamsaka Sutra). Whichever seven-limb prayer we use, we need to set our minds clearly on the different points and on what they mean, and then conclude with a dedication prayer. These are the procedures that Lama Serlingpa, the teacher of Atisha, taught.

We then make various requests to be able to turn our minds to the Dharma, to be able to turn everything into a pathway of Dharma, and that we will actually be able to put this all into practice.

Offering a Mandala

Regarding the presentation of the world that we offer as a mandala, it traditionally consists of Mount Meru, the four continents and so forth, as in the Hindu scriptures. I remember once during a pilgrimage in India I came across a Hindu temple. I don’t remember exactly where it was, but it had a mural of Mount Meru and the four continents, quite similar to what we have. So we offer the objects arranged before us, and imagine things such as Mount Meru, the continents and so forth, and offer them too: it’s not necessary to have a very elaborate mandala plate. The visualization doesn’t have to be completely the way it is in the abhidharma texts, however. It could be like the actual world is.

We can’t deny the world is round. This is something we can see ourselves: we can actually see the curvature of the earth. The way the world is described in modern times is confirmed by our perception; it is actually seen by the eyes. If we were to deny that and insist on the world being exactly as it says in A Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge (mDzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha), that would be really absurd, wouldn’t it? So what we’re concerned with here is not so much the refutation of the scientific presentation or the refutation of the presentation of the world in A Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge. The point is to offer the world in its most splendid and beautiful aspect, to offer something very pleasing, to build up some positive force and a constructive state of mind. We need to keep that attitude in mind when offering up a world system as a mandala. Since our spiritual mentor and the thousands and millions of Buddhas are known as the greatest or especially distinguished bountiful field for building up positive force, we offer the mandala to them.

A Healthy Relation with a Spiritual Mentor

This brings us to a healthy relation and whole-hearted commitment to our spiritual mentor (guru-devotion), the advantages of such a commitment, and the disadvantages of going against it.

In this very life, if we want to learn how to sew or to paint Buddha-figures, we need to learn from someone whom we can watch doing it so that we can follow that example and try to do it ourselves. We need a teacher. This is also true of spiritual training. It’s extremely important to rely on a teacher, a spiritual mentor, in a healthy manner, with a whole-hearted commitment to him or her. To do this, we need to meditate deeply in order to develop extremely strong belief and trust in our spiritual mentor. Developing that trusting belief can be in relation to either the method or the wisdom side of our practice. If we develop it in relation to the wisdom side, the side of discriminating awareness, then we need to examine the various reasons for the necessity to develop confident trust and belief in him or her.

If we have confident trust and belief in a spiritual mentor, we will be able to gain inspiration from him or her. If we don’t, no matter how much emphasis we put on discriminating awareness, we are not going to gain any inspiration to develop it. Whatever the good qualities and qualification a spiritual mentor may have, if we don’t have firm and trusting conviction that he or she in fact has them, we won’t get any inspiration from the person. It doesn’t matter how many offerings we might make or prayers we might address to him or her, our hearts won’t be uplifted or moved.

So first we need to know the points involved in having a healthy, whole-hearted commitment to a spiritual mentor. What are the requirements? In his lam-rim texts, Tsongkhapa sets out the qualities and qualifications of a spiritual mentor, the qualities and qualifications of the disciple, the measure and benefits of relying on such a master in a healthy manner, and the disadvantages of not doing so.

First are the qualifications of a spiritual mentor. We need to know these very well in order to check for them. What are his qualities of body, speech and mind, his accomplishments, is he learned? What does he practice? Spiritual mentors do not just rise up by themselves. To think that spiritual mentors are self-begotten is wrong. None of them are learned from birth.

An incarnation (tulku) is not necessarily a lama, and a lama is not necessarily an incarnation. There is no logical pervasion between the two. “La (bla),” the first syllable of “lama,” the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word guru, a spiritual mentor, means “high,” “superior,” or “grand,” as in the expression “lana-meypa (bla-na med-pa),” meaning “nothing higher” or “nothing grander.” It connotes someone who has very high and grand realizations, a superior teacher, someone with great qualities, not just somebody fat who is grand in weight! A lama is someone with great skills and qualities, not just someone with a grand name or title.

The qualifications of the spiritual mentor need to be complete, both in terms of his or her scriptural knowledge and of his or her actual realization. A qualified master needs to have both, and must not be someone prone to anger, even if he or she knows the texts very well. We need someone who has all the good qualities and knowledge, who lives according to the teachings, and who can explain them clearly to others.

The lam-rim says, “A spiritual mentor is someone who is disciplined, with a calm, settled mind and deep insight, has superior qualities, is enthusiastic, knows many teachings, fully understands voidness, is skilled in explaining it, is loving, and persevering.” Likewise, the disciples need to have a sincere interest in learning and a sincere interest in improving themselves. The texts say not to teach Dharma to those who aren’t sincerely interested or who have just intellectual curiosity.

We try to accomplish guru-yoga. “Yoga” here means to integrate with the real thing. In other words, we want to integrate our bodies, speech and minds with the good qualities of the body, speech, and mind of our spiritual mentor and of his or her lineage of spiritual masters, which are “the real thing.” We make requests to be able to develop the same type of realizations, insights and actualizations as our spiritual mentor. That is what guru-yoga is, integrating ourselves with the real thing as represented by the guru.

In order to enter fully into this practice, we need reflect on the benefits of relying on a qualified spiritual mentor in a healthy manner, with trust and commitment, and the disadvantages of not having it or of losing or dropping it.

Then we need to think about what might be the actual ways of relating to and relying on a spiritual mentor in a healthy manner, with a whole-hearted commitment? This would be in terms of our minds or attitudes toward him or her, and our way of behaving, our actions. In terms of the minds or attitudes, we need to have confident belief that the spiritual mentor is a Buddha, while knowing what that actually means, and then remain mindful of his or her kindness, with deep appreciation and gratitude. In terms of our actions, the basic one is to put into practice exactly what our spiritual mentor advises; and then to show respect and help him or her. As Milarepa said, “I have no material objects to offer to my spiritual mentor, but I can show my appreciation for his kindness by committing myself to practicing exactly what he says.” A Mahayana master is someone who is not interested in being offered something material, but in being offered sincere practice by the disciple.

[See: Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship, chapter 9.]

When we speak of practicing exactly as our spiritual mentor advises, we are speaking of a mentor who has absolute, total, full qualifications. But it’s going to be difficult to find somebody who has absolute, total, full qualifications; so, as it says in the teachings, don’t look at the person; look at what he or she says. The spiritual mentor might be someone with not so many realizations or not such high ones; but we need to examine what he or she says, and see if it is meaningful.

We need to check the mentor’s teachings and test his or her qualities and qualifications. It’s not good to accept a spiritual teacher as our mentor, and then to find that he or she has faults and make mistakes, so that we later turn away from the person because of these faults. That’s a very painful and unfortunate situation. We need to examine very carefully from the start, as it says in the teachings before committing ourselves to someone.

Beginningless Mind

After these preliminaries, then during our meditation sessions the text says that we need to reflect that, from beginningless time, we have been under the power and influence of our minds and our minds have been under the power and influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes.

When various teachings say “from beginningless time,” what do they mean by that? Other systems that speak of the creation of the world present a beginning, the creation. Here, things are not presented as having an absolute beginning. So “from beginningless time” means from infinite previous rebirths.

There’s a little three-year old girl in the Punjab who remembers very precisely many details of her previous life: her family, what happened, and so on. There are many other cases like that of children having clear recollection or recognition of things and people from their past lives. So there is some evidence of the existence of past lifetimes.

When we speak of beginningless lives, we are speaking of beginningless mind, the mental continuum. Mind is defined as mere clarity and awareness. Just to know the definition, however, is not enough. It is important actually to be able to recognize and identify this function of making things clear, in the sense of giving rise to appearances or mental representations of things, and being aware of things, in the sense of cognitively engaging with them. Mind is also something that has no beginning. It’s important to establish its existence and its relation with the physical body. It’s not something physical, but it is related to the physical body; it’s not a substance, nor a physical product. Also, there are different levels of mind, from gross to very subtle. It is the continuum of its subtlest level that reaches back over countless lifetimes, without a beginning.

Buddha said that if mind were something that could be newly created, or was a fleeting phenomenon that just came and went, or was created by a god, it would be very difficult to tame and control it. On the other hand, if we think of mind coming from beginningless time, and experiences coming from karmic impulses, based on previous actions, then we can apply various methods to tame the mind.

We need to examine the actual processes of how we acquire information, how we come to know things. It seems as though information comes in from outside, from something our eyes see, our ears hear, or something like that. Like now, I’m sitting here and looking at this white-haired old monk in front of me. It seems as though there is some sort of consciousness that is looking, making the connection with visual information, and ascertaining the specific object seen. That’s because while I am looking at that object, I can see things about it that are in my full, clear vision. But my mind will not perceive the object with certainty if it is thinking about something that happened to me in the morning. Although everything appears all around me, my mind will not be directed at it. So information seems to come in from the various senses and there also seems to be a certain factor of paying attention, which obviously involves a mental process.

We mustn’t just leave it, however, as the texts describe it. We need to examine things from our own experience and also take into consideration the modern scientific explanation of things, in terms of the presentation of the brain, how it works through the senses, how different parts of the brain are involved with different mental functions, and so on. We need to try to understand how the mind works in terms of our own experience as well as in terms of the scientific explanation. This will definitely require a great deal of investigation.

It is definitely possible to gain an ascertainment of how this whole process works that will accord with both Buddha’s explanation and also with the scientific presentation of the brain and the rest. The same is true regarding how memory works and the relationship between mind and matter. With us Tibetans, for instance, if we hear the two words China and India, although the first syllable in both these words is the same (“Gyanag” and “Gyagar”), the second syllable is different. There isn’t really anything physical in there that would affect our response; but immediately, just merely hearing the word China, we get uptight, and hearing the word India, our minds feel a bit more relaxed. Similarly, if you hear the words Tenzin Gyatso, immediately your minds feel happy and you think, “Great.” If you hear the words Mao Zedong, you think, “That bastard.” In each case, there isn’t anything physical there except just sounds of consonants and vowels, but there is some sort of relation with how our feelings work and previous distinctions we have made and concepts we hold.

It is extremely important to investigate such things, including visual images and how they appear to us. It is similar to what occurs when hearing the name “Tenzin Gyatso” and the feelings that accompany it. Investigate scientifically and see how it all happens. Even if it is not actually presented this way in the Buddhist teachings, see what process is going on in the brain, as it seems the brain is very involved in all of this. Different parts are involved with visual and auditory perception. See what is going on with dreaming. These aspects involving brain functions are all things that we can’t deny, because they are all established through science. Like when someone is asleep, if you make a small sound they don’t hear it: but if you make a loud sound then there is some physical reaction even if the person is asleep. Here again, we can’t deny this. We need to investigate and see clearly how everything actually works based on the findings of science and then how they would fit into the teachings.

The brain is also definitely involved with memory. And the same must be true with extrasensory perception, such as perceiving what might happen in the future, which comes from gaining absorbed concentration (samadhi). Such things are explained in the scriptures and there are actually people who develop it. A mental continuum that has experienced something that has happened previously is able to have some warnings of what will occur later, but only if that continuum has some interdependent relationship with the two events. It is possible to develop clairvoyance and give certain predictions of the future; but if there is no relationship of a future event with the continuity of consciousness, then one is not able to guess even a hint of the future. Clairvoyance doesn’t arise from nowhere; it is based on the various causes and circumstances in the actual mental continuum of the individual who has it.

Evolution

When we investigate the different levels of consciousness, it is good not to leave it only on the sutra level, but to investigate the tantra level as well. The tantras describe the subtlest level of mind and it is this level that comes from previous lifetimes and goes on to others. Connected with it is the subtlest level of body, which is the subtlest energy wind that always accompanies that level of mind. The “me” is something that can be labeled on these two as its basis for labeling, and it is this combination that travels from past lifetimes to the present and on into future lifetimes.

In each lifetime, the subtlest mind and body, through a process of evolution, become progressively grosser as they start to connect with the elements of gross matter. In terms of general evolution within the context of this world age, the scriptures describe how, in the beginning, the original beings lived just on absorbed concentration and didn’t need to eat. Eventually, however, they ate rougher and rougher food and acquired progressively grosser bodies. Now we need to investigate whether this refers to absolutely everybody when life begins to emerge in a world age or just to certain beings at that time.

Look at Tibet. We think of ourselves as descending from various deities who mated with monkeys and that people evolved from that. Science speaks of simpler life forms evolving into more complicated ones and that was how humans evolved. I myself have confidence in both these theories of evolution. As for the dates of the first people in Tibet, there is scientific evidence that people were there before the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Archeological digs have found human bones and other remains in Chamdo and Kongbo, dating three thousand years ago. In contrast, Buddha predicted that two hundred years after his passing, a new generation of beings would live in the Land of Snows. How to reconcile the two?

It is also very clear that there once was a lake in the Lhasa region, because in 1956 a geological survey team found fossils of plant life there. They show the leaves of a tree that fell into the lake, and which was preserved in the mud at the bottom. So there obviously was a lake there, with a forest at its edge. The lake gradually shrank and eventually dried up, and the Tsuglagkang Temple was built on the final vestiges of that lake. Buddha’s prediction didn’t say that there wouldn’t be any people existing beyond the bounds of the lake. It just indicated that a new generation of people would come to the region and live on the dry land that would emerge from the center of the lake. This doesn’t contradict the scientific evidence of prehistoric men in Chamdo and various other places in Tibet before that time. Like this, we need to investigate the meaning of these things in the scriptures and in science.

As for the theory of evolution, which teaches the progressive development of complex life forms from simpler ones, Shakyamuni Buddha came to teach how to attain a lasting blissful state of mind. He did not come to teach whether the world was round, square, or triangular. Within the body of the teachings of the Buddha, there are certain comments about the origins of specific peoples and places, but this is not the main topic. The principal points deal with karma and human consciousness and how to generate lasting happiness within that stream of mind. A Buddha always teaches in terms of what is going to accord with the disposition of the people and their way of thinking. If it fits their way of thinking, he may teach that things do have permanent existence, whereas to others he will teach that they don’t.

Previously in the West, people killed each other over the proper concept of the world that they held. Nobody would believe that the world was round. They believed it was flat and they killed each other over such things. The point of Buddha’s teaching is not about generating a mind that believes the world is flat or round. That’s missing the point. The whole point of his teachings about beginningless time is that mind is beginningless. If he were not talking about the beginninglessness of mind, there would not be much point in his discussing beginninglessness in general. It’s on the basis of beginningless mind that we get the discussion of the relation of mind to the body in terms of karma. Within the overall continuity of beginningless mind, various types of bodies come and go, both on an individual and a world level. The discussion of beginningless lifetimes and beginningless mind must be based on logic and reasoning, and it is something that can definitely be established in that way. So it is important to put a great deal of effort into investigating these points with logic.

Absorbing the Mind in Positive States

Since we each have an individual, beginningless mental continuum, in what direction is it going? What are the factors that influence the contents of its experience? We find that, from beginningless time, we’ve been under the influence of attachment, hostility, and naivety. This is what is meant by the expression “other-powered” or “being under the influence of other factors.” In other words, the mind is not under our control, it is controlled by these other factors: various disturbing emotions, delusions, unawareness (ignorance), and so forth. Because our minds are not tamed, we perform all sorts of destructive actions and they build up the various types of karmic aftermath, which perpetuate these patterns of behavior and bring us more problems. We experience unhappiness and suffering as what ripens from the negative karmic force that has come as the aftermath of our destructive actions. We acted in those ways because of the destructive karmic impulses that arose in our minds. And where did they come from? They came from our minds not being under our control. So it is necessary to bring our minds under control, and not let them go under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes. We need to have them under the control of constructive, positive emotions and attitudes.

To be able to apply our minds to constructive aims, we need to make them flexible and serviceable, so that we can apply them at will to whatever we wish. To make them serviceable, we need to employ the various procedures of training the mind through meditation. Through repetition and familiarization, meditation builds up as a habit certain positive states of mind. These states make our minds flexible so that we can apply them to further constructive states. If we want to do this, however, our minds need to be stable. No matter what object or mental state we take as our object of focus, if our minds cannot stay focused on it with stability, we will be unable to familiarize them with this state and integrate it as part of our minds.

For example, if we are trying to develop a habit of compassion, our minds have to actually stay focused, with stability, in that state. If the mind is totally immersed into an emotion, attitude, or state of mind in general, it builds up great force to stay in that direction. When we are trying, through meditation, to make compassion a very strong habit, if thoughts of impermanence or of suffering and problems arise, although such thoughts theoretically can be a help, at the particular time of trying to build up concentration on compassion, they are hindrances. We need to immerse our minds and absorb our concentration totally, single-pointedly, in the object of the meditation.

Before we will be able to immerse and absorb our minds in the state that we want to build up as a positive habit, we need first to ascertain the actual nature of that state of mind. We need to know what it is, correctly and with certitude. Only on the basis of this strong recognition and ascertainment of this state can we feel confident to immerse our minds in it. Likewise, we need to have strong confidence in the necessity for developing that state of mind. Consider the example of compassion. With discerning (analytical) meditation, we need to think beforehand, “Compassion is something I definitely need to develop for this and that reason.” When we go through all the reasons for developing it, we develop a very strong, confident belief in compassion. Only then can we absorb our minds completely in it during concentrated meditation and know it is very helpful.

The text discusses the benefits of doing three sessions of meditation during the day and three at night. It is also necessary to be in an isolated and quiet place during the meditation sessions and the periods in between them. If we hear loud and disturbing noises and have disturbing types of thoughts, our minds will be upset and we won’t be able to concentrate properly. Also, as I tell the monks and nuns, we need to take care about the state of our minds in general. Regarding this, the text also says that another circumstance conducive for meditating is not to eat at night. Of course, if we find that our bodies are not getting enough nutrition and feel very weak from not eating after lunch, then that is a different situation. We have to take the physical realities of our bodies into consideration. However, if we’re able, then it is more conducive to meditation if we don’t eat at night. More detailed explanations on this can be found in the two lam-rim texts of Tsongkhapa.

The Preliminaries: The Precious Human Rebirth

The first of the seven points for training the mind is the preliminaries, which are the supporting basis. These are thinking about:

  • the precious human rebirth,

  • death and impermanence,

  • behavioral cause and effect, or karma,

  • the sufferings or problems of uncontrollably recurring existence, samsara.

The text now speaks about the first preliminary, the precious human rebirth. First we need to recognize the eight respites and the ten enrichments. Respites, or leisure, are temporary states of freedom from the eight situations of no leisure.

[From among the eight situations with no leisure that prevent Dharma practice, the four nonhuman situations are rebirth as

  • a trapped being in a joyless realm (hell-creature),

  • a desperately clutching ghost (hungry ghost),
  • a creeping creature (animal),
  • a long-lived divine being (god).

The four human situations of no leisure are rebirth as

  • a barbarian in a savage border region,
  • in a land where the Dharma is unavailable,
  • with severe learning disabilities,
  • instinctively holding a distorted outlook on life, denying what is true.

From among the ten enriching situations that enable Dharma practice (the ten endowments), the five personal situations are rebirth as

  • a human,
  • in a central Buddhist region,
  • with complete faculties,
  • not still experiencing the repercussions from having committed the most extreme destructive actions,
  • with instinctive belief in what is true.

The five social situations that enable Dharma practice are rebirth

  • where and when a Buddha has come,
  • has taught the Dharma,
  • the Dharma is still maintained,
  • with a monastic community following the Buddha’s example,
  • with others compassionately supporting the monastic community.]

The first of these situations of no leisure is to have distorted antagonistic thinking. Those who say antagonistically that clairvoyance is impossible – or do not even see the possibility of being reborn into a situation in which the teachings of the Buddha are available – are quite incapable of pursuing the practice of the Dharma, and sometimes get desperate to the point of committing suicide.

Fortunately we are not like that. We are healthy, with a sound body and sound intelligence to understand. For example, there are some Westerners here with us; in Tibetan we call them “yellow-haired people,” but some are dark-haired, some red-haired, and some even bald! And people born in China may have no opportunity to practice Dharma. Yet the foreigners here, although born in a country where the Dharma isn’t present yet, have heard about it and its advantages, and they have come here to learn.

There is a point of debate here as to whether those who come from America are coming from the Northern Continent. If they are, the karmic obstacles are very heavy, but it’s in question. According to the sutras, the people from the Northern Continent have no ownership and no possessions – and in America, people are very possessive about their wealth and material status! There also seems to be a great deal of interest in Buddhism in the USA, because they have many immigrants from places like China, Japan and Vietnam whose parents’ heritage is Buddhist. There are also many Americans who have come into contact with Tibetan Buddhism and an interest has arisen there.

This is all part of the discussion of one of the situations of no leisure that the precious human body is free of. Rebirth with such a body is hard to achieve and, even if reborn as a human, the possibilities of meeting the Dharma are few. Even if we have met the Dharma, if we are deficient in terms of being severely handicapped and learning disabled, the opportunity is lost. And even if we are not severely disabled, it is still possible that we were born with an extremely distorted, antagonistic attitude, and that would really hinder our possibility of developing.

It is helpful if we look at each of these different situations of no leisure, and think: “How easily I could have been born in such a state, and how fortunate I am to be free from that.” When we think very strongly of this situation we have of freedom from a condition of no leisure, then we develop the great sense of happiness and relief that is a part of this meditation.

Among the ten enrichments, being born as a human, in a central area and so forth, are the enrichments from our own personal side. There are also enrichments from the side of society, such as being born at a time when a Buddha has come, when the teachings are flourishing, and when there are patrons supporting and people practicing them.

Now, we all have these eight situations of leisure. While it might be difficult to meet all the qualifications of the ten enrichments, the most important are the eight situations of leisure, or respites, that we have. That is why, in various texts, they often speak of this body of great leisure, this body of respites, because these are the ones that all of us do have. The point of all this is that, if we have this great opportunity, this precious human life, we cannot let it go to waste; we need to make good use of it.

How do we actually take advantage of this precious human body? The people from the Northern Continent are excluded from this leisure and freedom – just those from the other three continents. Thinking of the importance of this precious working basis that we have, we can achieve with it all the purified states of bodhi: namely the purified states of an arhat or liberated being of either the shravaka or pratyekabuddha class, or the purified state of a Buddha. This precious human body is the basis upon which can actually achieve any of these great spiritual goals. Outside of the precious human body, there is no other basis from which we can develop a strong bodhichitta aim. This precious human body is something absolutely essential in order to practice the tantric paths, as the great master Nagabodhi, a disciple of Nagarjuna, explains in his presentation of the stages.

The precious human life we have on this continent is a body of actions. We live in this land of actions, which means that, based on various actions, we are able to have either a shorter life or a longer life, and we can achieve various things within this lifetime. Since we were born in the land of actions – this Southern Continent – it is possible by our actions to achieve something in this lifetime. So, this precious human life is something extremely powerful. In addition to this, if our precious human life has the eight ripened good qualities, then when we think of the individual causes and nature of these eight, we will increase our capacity to achieve all our goals. To have such potential and just throw it away is a real waste isn’t it? It is as if we had a precious heirloom made of gold to use as the financial basis for supporting our lives; but, instead, we just wasted it. That would be a sad situation.

[The eight ripened good qualities (rnam-smin-gyi yon-tan brgyad) for a precious human rebirth are:

  • to have a long life,
  • a pleasing physical appearance,
  • an excellent family background or caste,
  • wealth,
  • credible speech,
  • power and influence,
  • a strong physical body, great stamina, and a strong mind or great willpower,
  • to be masculine, which in a traditional society meant having more opportunities.] 

[See: General Introduction to the Initial Scope Teachings of the Graded Path (Lam-rim), Day Two.]

When we have the realization that to waste this precious human body, even for a moment, would be an extreme loss, this is the recognition of our precious human rebirth. The scriptures refer to the great advantages of the precious human rebirth as the seed for growing all kinds of qualities, and a great jewel that brings us all the attainments. In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Shantideva says, “So if, having found a respite such as this, I don’t make being constructive a habit, there’s nothing more self-deceptive than this; there’s nothing more stupid than this….) Having found, somehow, a beneficial rebirth, so hard to find, if (now), while able to discriminate, I drag myself down once more to a joyless realm, it amounts to not having had a mind while here, like having been stupefied by a mantra spell. If I don’t know what’s causing me to be so stupid, well, what is it there inside my (head)?”

This quote from Shantideva is similar to what Aryashura said: “Once we have this precious opportunity, we must not throw it away because, if we were to fall to some unbearable state, like that of a trapped being in a joyless hell realm, we would have no opportunity to improve our condition.” So we need to think how fortunate we are, that we are in a situation in which we can actually do something about what happens to us.

If this precious human body, with its eight respites and ten enrichments, were something easy to acquire again and again, it wouldn’t be so sad. Like a child, we might think, “If I don’t get it today or tomorrow, I’ll be able to get it soon anyway.” If this were so, it would be a different story. But the reality is that a precious human life is extremely rare and difficult to achieve. To understand this, we need to look first at cause and effect – if the causes were not rare, neither would be the results. But the causes themselves are very rare.

The basic philosophy and outlook of Buddhism is that everything arises dependently on something else: all things come from causes. A precious human rebirth isn’t something that comes about out of thin air, but as a result of causes. Living human beings come from the sperm and eggs of their parents, who came from previous sperm and eggs, and so it goes, all the way back through the process of evolution. Beings developed within an environment incipient in an emerging universe that, in turn, came about from a previous period when such a universe was not yet existent. Going thusly through cycles advancing from even earlier cycles, all these outcomes resulted from various causes, concordant with the diverse karma of those various beings. Just as the diverse life forms in the universe come from causes, the same applies to our own individual mental continuums and the life forms that they take on. Actions that we took in the past brought about, as an effect of those actions, the births we have had. And what we do in this lifetime will determine our future rebirths.

Our mental continuum doesn’t always remain the same. It is different as a layperson and as a monk or nun with vows. Monks and nuns have a special interest in devoting their entire lives to the Dharma. And what makes a monk or a nun? It is the effect of the vows on their mental continuum, the various trainings, restraints and so forth, which come from the Buddhas. This comes about through a process of causes. For instance, a monk may think, “Although as a monk I follow certain disciplines, if my mind becomes deluded by disturbing attitudes, I will waste this opportunity I have.” So we need to make proper use of the time and opportunities that we have. As soon as we awake in the morning, we do our various prayers and recitations. If our mind starts to wander, we try to bring it back. We cannot lose the opportunity – even if we need to slap our face to come back to the point of the meditation!

Something we particularly want to safeguard against is getting angry. If we become angry with others, as Shantideva says in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, it devastates all the positive force we have built up on our mental continuum. Shantideva also tells us that the causes for anger are many, because not only do we get angry at people who irritate us, we even become impatient with birds singing loudly! We get unnecessarily upset so easily that we have to take care to be aware of this tendency toward anger. We see something inauspicious and we get upset! The dogs keep us awake at night and we get angry with them for not letting us sleep! Yet compared to the Chinese communists, who try to justify killing, torturing and causing suffering to people, we are not so bad. At least we make an attempt to be religious, to do good things, and to be on the right path.

We may have studied and then feel great pride, thinking, “I know the texts very well, I’m a great teacher, and everything can fall on my shoulders – I’m going to teach everybody.” If we have that type of proud mind, and especially if our motivation to teach is to make a lot of money and become very famous, this is a complete waste of our learning. All of it will have been pointless. People who don’t follow the spiritual path correctly are like an exhausted donkey that stops along the path and cannot move or make any more progress.

The Chinese, who don’t assert any religion and criticize each other back and forth, are not as bad as some of us here in robes who are supposed to be doing various religious practices, yet instead spend time criticizing that monk to the left who did this or that, and that monk on the right who did the other. To act in this way creates far more negative potential than the Chinese, who do the same without asserting any religion.

If we don’t build up the causes in this lifetime to gain a precious human rebirth in the future, such a rebirth is going to be very hard to achieve. We can examine its rarity in terms of both its nature and its numbers, such as the fact that there are many more insects than humans, for example. Even if we don’t take into account the trapped beings in the joyless realms (hell beings) and the clutching ghosts (hungry ghosts), since we can’t actually see them, still we couldn’t accurately count the number of animals and insects in this world. So, from the point of view of the actual number of individuals in each life form, we can see that the number of those who have a precious human life form is very small.

The estimated global human population is 4.8 billion. How many in this number have a fully qualified precious human rebirth, both in terms of statistics and causes? We need to ask ourselves whether we actually have the complete conditions and causes within us to attain a precious human birth. When we think in this way, we can appreciate the challenge of how few precious human births there are, and how hard it is to accumulate the causes for achieving one.

As for the establishment of the Dharma, it was created not for the benefit of the Buddhas themselves, but for the benefit of those who want happiness and don’t want suffering – beings such as us. And it was taught to enable us to control and tame our minds. What are the circumstances conducive to this? If we have the external circumstance of having a spiritual mentor who is fully qualified and the internal circumstance of a precious human rebirth, we have the ability to make progress and achieve these goals. If we think even further, from a deeper level, in terms of Buddha-nature, we indeed do have all the essential factors that will allow us to fully evolve into Buddhas. With all the bases, causes and circumstances in place, there is no reason why we can’t achieve our goals. The admonition not to waste this time is something we must heed right now, not “next year,” or in some vague future. We cannot waste this moment! This is because life can be quite short, and the best way to take advantage of our precious human rebirth is to develop a bodhichitta aim.

So, let us reflect, deeply, on how rare and short a precious human life can be. Let us resolve, decisively, to use it in the best possible way, making prayers and requests to do this by developing a bodhichitta aim. This completes the first preliminary.