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Discourse on the Main Points of Dharma, Based on the First Panchen Lama’s Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I
Barnet, Vermont, USA, August 1982
Translated by Alexander Berzin
Edited by Lucy Costa and Alexander Berzin

Part I: The Lam-rim Graded Stages as Preparation Shared in Common by Sutra and Tantra Mahamudra

Session One: Taking Preventive Measures to Avoid Worse Rebirth

How to Develop a Mind That Is Interested in Dharma

The procedure here will be one of a dialogue, back and forth, of asking questions, because if I just sit here and lecture you, that is not of great benefit as we only have a few days. Whereas, if we ask questions and talk back and forth on a more informal level, that will be much more beneficial to you.

All of you are here today, living in a very lovely place, which is far removed, and have a great interest in practicing the Dharma and devoting yourselves to spiritual growth. This is very wonderful. First, I’ll ask you a question. How do you actually develop a mind that is interested in Dharma?

Participant: We’ve been going over that in meditation class in the last few days, trying to decide just what it takes to tame the mind, but none of us have really been sure. I guess it’s actually seeing suffering and deciding to do more about it and accepting the responsibility that it’s up to you to eliminate it.

Serkong Rinpoche: In a sense that is correct. When you look at suffering and problems, these are things that nobody wants. Nobody wants suffering and problems, everybody wants happiness. In terms of the pursuit of happiness, having a lot to eat and drink and a comfortable place to stay bring a certain amount of happiness, but that’s not the happiness we’re talking about, is it?

Participant: No, it’s not!

Participant: Well, in that case, being aware of impermanence?

Serkong Rinpoche: To answer the question, if we have a certain amount of happiness only in the sense that we have enough to eat and drink and a place to stay, is that enough? Is that the happiness everybody is looking for?

Participant: Nothing seems to satisfy.

Serkong Rinpoche: In this country you can get a job and can very easily make enough money to live on and, as you say, this is not enough, this isn’t satisfying. Why is that so? Why isn’t it enough?

Participant: It changes, there’s no permanence?

Serkong Rinpoche: That’s correct. As you rightly say, that type of happiness is something that isn’t permanent; it doesn’t last forever and therefore it is unsatisfactory. Then what kind of permanent happiness are you looking for?

Participant: There’s no such thing as permanent happiness.

Serkong Rinpoche: Well, a happiness that is not permanent, that is nonstatic, that type of happiness is something that is not enough. Does this imply that you want to find a lasting happiness, or that you don’t want to find any happiness?

Participant: You would want to find a lasting happiness that isn’t limited by predispositions, by karma.

Serkong Rinpoche: So if there is no such thing as a static, unchanging happiness, then is it that you want a happiness that is very long-lasting, one that is splendid and as great a happiness as is possible? If that is the type of happiness that you want, then as you said, it’s true that the type of happiness that you get from following worldly pursuits is something that is very limited. It changes and doesn’t last. Therefore, except for Dharma and spiritual pursuits, there is no way of getting a really great type of happiness that lasts very long and is of a very excellent quality.

So what do you understand by the word Dharma, what does it mean? When we say “practice the Dharma,” what does it mean that you should practice the Dharma?

Participant: The teachings of the Buddha.

Serkong Rinpoche: You have to give it a little more thought. What does it mean to practice the Dharma and what is the boundary between someone who practices the Dharma and someone who doesn’t practice Dharma.

Participant: A conscientious person, making an effort to conscientiously learn the Dharma?

Serkong Rinpoche: A spiritual practice or Dharma is something that is not simply constructing a nice building here in order to have things go well in this lifetime. An activity in which your concern is primarily gaining food and drink and comfortable things for this life is not a Dharma practice or true spiritual practice. But any type of practice that is aimed at benefiting anything from your next future life onwards would be a spiritual Dharma practice. That is the boundary. Do you understand?

It comes down to whether or not you accept the existence of past and future lives. If you do not accept the existence of future lives, then there is no way in which you would be doing a true Dharma practice. If you are interested in bringing about a long-lasting happiness, then it is not a happiness that is just for the short period of this lifetime alone, but you should be concerned with bringing about a happiness that will last for all your future lives. So this is a type of activity that Dharma practice is involved with: bringing about a lasting happiness that will be for future lives.

The word “spiritual practice,” or Dharma in Sanskrit, has the connotation of a preventive measure, something that holds you back or prevents something from happening. In terms of how it holds you back or prevents something, there are three ways in which you can understand this. The expression “to hold back” has three connotations.

  • The first is to hold back you back or prevent you from falling to a hell realm in a future rebirth.

  • Even though you can take certain measures that will prevent you or hold you back from falling to one of the worst states of rebirth in your future lives, it is possible that even though you are held back in the next life, you can again fall to one of the lower realms in lives following that. So there are also preventive measures that you can take to hold you back, or prevent you, from ever falling back or from ever being reborn in any type of samsaric situation; samsara being an uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

  • In addition to just being able to take measures to prevent yourself from being reborn in any sort of uncontrollably recurring situation, in samsara, you can also take measures that will prevent anybody, in general, from ever falling into that type of situation, since everybody is in the same position as yourself.

So when you speak about the preventive measures of Dharma, these are the measures that can be taken to prevent these three types of things from happening:

  • yourself falling to a lower realm,

  • yourself being reborn in any situation of samsara, or

  • anybody being reborn in that situation.

So do you understand these three ways in which the Dharma prevents things from happening, or holds you back, or holds everybody back? “Preventive” is probably a better word, preventive measures of Dharma. Do you understand what it means when I say “preventive”?

Participant: What can I do by practicing the Dharma to help other people from falling into samsara?

Serkong Rinpoche: That will come in due course. We’ll deal with each of the types of measures that you can take to prevent each of those three things from happening. But the first point is to just recognize what actually are the three levels of things that you are working to prevent. So do you understand what the three are in general, then we will go into detail?

Ethical Self-Discipline: Refraining from the Ten Destructive Actions

Now the first thing to prevent yourself from being reborn in any of the worst states of wandering existence, the preventive measures that you take to prevent that, would be to restrain yourself from committing any of the ten destructive, or nonvirtuous, actions. By observing that type of ethical behavior, you prevent yourself from being born in a lower realm.

In order to be able to follow that type of ethical self­-discipline you need to know what are the ten destructive actions and that is something which you probably know. Do you know them?

Participant: No.

The Three Destructive Actions of the Body
Killing

Serkong Rinpoche: First of all, there are three destructive actions of the body. The first of these destructive actions is to take the life of any living creature – to kill. If you think about it, the thing that we cherish the most, what we consider the most precious possession that we own, is our life. If someone deprives us of our life, that is the worst thing that somebody can do to us in terms of what we cherish the most among our possessions. Likewise, the same is true for every other living creature: what they cherish the most is their own life.

In order for the action of taking the life of a creature to be complete, four things need to be present. There needs to be a basis for the action; there needs to be a thought or an intention involved; likewise, an actual action that takes place; and a conclusion that occurs.

  • For the action to occur completely, first you need a basis for the killing. In other words, you would need a goat or a sheep or some living being that you would kill.

  • In terms of the intention or the thought that is involved, there need to be both a correct recognition as well as a motivation. In terms of this, for the action to be complete and the consequences to follow fully, you would need a correct recognition. In other words, suppose there is a goat and a sheep and you go out to kill a sheep, but you don’t recognize which one is a sheep and you kill the goat by accident. That is not the same as doing it with full recognition of what you are doing. You need to recognize what it is that you set out to kill.

In terms of the type of motivation that can be involved in actually killing the animal, there could be any of three kinds of motivation. To be motivated by desire and attachment, to be motivated out of anger and hostility, or to be motivated out of close-minded ignorance or naivety. Out of infatuated attachment or desire, you could go out and kill the sheep because you want to eat its meat. You have desire for the meat. Or you could kill out of anger and hostility, for instance if you are very angry at the animal and you bash it and kill it. Or out of close-minded ignorance and naivety, you could believe that by sacrificing this animal you would be able to gain a better rebirth, and you go out and slaughter a great deal of animals, and offer a blood sacrifice because of that motivation. This is to kill out of ignorance and naivety.

  • The third part is that there must be an action involved. The action involved would be, for instance slitting the throat of the sheep, or slicing its stomach and pulling out its innards, or any type of method you might think of to actually kill the animal. There has to be an actual action involved.

  • Then the conclusion of the act has to occur, in other words, the animal has actually to die for the action of killing to be complete.

So you should understand that, in terms of talking a life, whether it is yourself or the life of someone else, all these factors need to be involved for it to be a full action of killing.

Now in terms of killing another creature, the creature itself has to die or the other person has to die before you die for it to be complete. Committing suicide is not exactly the same type of action as taking the life of some creature because, in this instance, it’s not that the basis that you kill dies before you die, so it is a different type of action.

With respect to the results that follow from such a destructive action as taking the life of some creature, that can be understood in terms of four different types of results.

  • The first of these is the ripening effect, or the type of rebirth that ripens from that action. This would be a rebirth as a hell creature, or as a hungry ghost, or as an animal – in other words, a rebirth in one of these three worst states.

  • Then, once the ripening results have exhausted and because of different types of positive or constructive actions that you’ve done in the past you’re reborn as a human again, then during that human lifetime you will have a short life filled with a great deal of sickness and difficulties. This would be the next type of result, which is the result that corresponds to its cause in terms of what you experience. You took a life and shortened somebody else’s life, so your own life is short.

  • Then the next result, also in a human life that follows later on, would be that from an early age, from early childhood, you would delight in killing other creatures. You would be very sadistic and go around torturing living beings, for instance insects. That would be the result that corresponds to its cause in terms of your instinctive behavior. You would continue to have the instincts to be a sadistic killer.

  • The fourth result is called a comprehensive result, and this is comprehensive in the sense that you would be reborn in a land with many other beings who likewise killed in the past. As a result, all of you would experience together a comprehensive result that in the land where you are born, everything would have very little strength. For instance, there would be very poor medical facilities, the medicine would be very weak and ineffective, the food and harvest would be very poor and the food would have little nutritional value. This would be a comprehensive result that all of you would experience together.

So if you look at all the shortcomings, the disastrous results that follow from taking the life of other creatures, on the basis of recognizing these things, then you will make a very strong effort to restrain yourself, to refrain from ever killing. That is a constructive action and that would be the first of the ten constructive or virtuous actions: that of refraining from taking the life of any creature. For instance, our being reborn now as a human being with this type of excellent body and working basis that we have is the result of having done such constructive types of actions in the past.

If you want to be born as a human being or as a god or as one of the anti-gods, any of these better states of rebirth, then you need to follow the ethical self-discipline of refraining from killing. Likewise, a result that will follow corresponding to its cause in terms of your experience will be that you have a long life and it will be very healthy and free from all sicknesses. The result that will correspond to its cause in terms of your instinctive behaviour is that you will be repelled by the idea of killing anything and that you will not like eating meat. You will be instinctively repelled by eating meat. The comprehensive result would be being reborn with many others who have equally refrained from killing, and all of you together will experience in this place where you are reborn, that everything around you is very healthy, everything has a high life-supporting or nutritional value, the food is very healthy, the medicine is very effective, and so on.

It is important to recognize what are the destructive actions and to know how to restrain yourself from committing them and in that way act in a constructive manner; Doing that is a preventive measure, or Dharma, to prevent yourself from being reborn in any of the worst states of rebirth. In order to be a measure to be included in the next level of preventive measures of Dharma, however, taking measures to prevent being reborn in any type of uncontrollably recurring situation of samsara, it would need to fit into the three types of higher training. The third of these is the training in higher wisdom or discriminating awareness.