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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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From the Two Truths, the Four Truths; from the Four Truths, the Three Precious Gems

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, May 2012

Session Three: From the Four Truths, the Three Precious Gems

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:53 hours)

Review of Previous Sessions

So we are continuing our discussion of this particular verse by His Holiness the Dalai Lama which explains how we go from the understanding of the two truths to the understanding of the four truths to having confidence in the Three Jewels of Refuge. And what we’ve seen is that the two truths talk about how things actually exist and function (in other words, reality), and this is referring to:

  • In terms of relative or conventional truth, what actually appears to us is that things arise from causes and conditions. In other words, if we saw reality, this is what we would see. But unfortunately very often we don’t see things that way.

  • And on the deepest level, things do not exist in the impossible ways that our confusion projects onto them. For instance, that things arise by themselves independently of any causes, conditions, parts, or anything else.

So this is the foundation.

And the four noble truths are speaking about when we are confused about reality and when we actually see and understand reality correctly. So when we are confused about reality, then that acts as a cause of suffering (the cause is the second noble truth; the actual sufferings that we experience is the first noble truth). And on the other hand, if we can see reality and understand it and stay focused on it all the time, then we would have the third noble truth – that’s a true stopping of suffering because we’ve gotten rid of its cause – and that understanding is the true path that will bring about that true stopping. And when we don’t understand reality, when we are acting on the basis of unawareness and confusion, then we perpetuate our uncontrollably recurring rebirth; whereas if we get rid of that unawareness and confusion, then we can reverse (in the sense of get out of or stop) that samsaric rebirth.

The Three Precious Gems

Now the third line of this verse:

Brought on by valid cognition, then our conviction that the Three Refuges are fact becomes firm.

The Three Refuges are referring to, as I mentioned in the introductory lecture, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. These are the Sanskrit words. And the Buddha and Buddhas are obviously those who have reached enlightenment and teach us how to do that. Dharmas are their teachings. Sangha is the highly realized community. That’s one level of understanding them, but there’s also a deeper meaning of them.

And in terms of the deeper meaning, Dharma is referring to the actual attainments, and it’s the attainment of the third and fourth noble truths. The third noble truth, as you remember, is a true stopping of suffering and its causes. And so when we attain that, we attain liberation from samsara, from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. And the fourth noble truth is that understanding that brings about the attainment of that true stopping and that understanding that we have as a result of the true stopping. Now, this is known as a refuge. So what does a refuge actually mean? Refuge is something that protects us, so it protects us from suffering. And if we were to attain this deepest Dharma – if we were to attain this true stopping and true understanding, true pathway understanding – then we would prevent ourselves from experiencing suffering. So it’s not that someone else has attained this and if we just entrust ourselves to someone else who has attained it, then we will in a sense be saved.

The so-called Abrahamic religions – this is referring to Judaism, then Christianity, then Islam – these are what are known as history-oriented religions. In other words, in each of these three religions you have a historical figure who, in a historical event, had some sort of revelation from God – whether it’s Moses or Jesus or Mohammed – and they revealed this truth, and they are the final word. So we can’t do what they did. What we need to do is to have faith in them. And this is of course described in different ways in the different Abrahamic religious traditions, but through faith in them, then we will be saved from our suffering. So either faith in them personally or faith in what they have taught, what they have revealed. So this historical event of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses, or Jesus revealing the New Testament, or Muhammad revealing the Koran – this is a very significant historical event and is at the center of these Abrahamic religions.

When we talk about Indian religions – that is, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism – these can be spoken of in terms of being Dharma religions. Then this is completely different. The historical fact of Buddha or Krishna or Mahavira (the founder of Jainism) is not the central event, but rather we ourselves – everybody – can attain liberation, the state of these great beings. We ourselves can attain liberation and enlightenment, if we speak now just in the Buddhist context. But these other religions talk about liberation as well, other Dharmic religions. This is one of the most fundamental differences between Abrahamic religions (our Western religions, including Islam) and Indian religions, the most fundamental difference.

So when we look at these refuges, it’s very important not to look at them through the projection of our Western, Abrahamic religions. It isn’t that “Buddha was the only one who attained enlightenment. And now if I believe in Buddha, I will be saved” and we follow what Buddha said. It’s not like that. So to avoid that, I like to avoid using the word refuge as a translation term, because it tends to give a slightly passive flavor, that you just go for refuge, which means “Oh Buddha, save me,” and you’re saved. That’s not really the flavor of Buddhism if we’re talking about when you have a correct understanding of Buddhism. But rather I speak about a safe direction. In other words, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are indicating a direction for us to go in for us to attain what a Buddha has attained ourselves. And although Buddha has taught a way for us to be able to protect ourselves, we have to put it into practice, and it’s really our efforts and our own attainment that will protect us from suffering, help us avoid suffering.

The Dharma Gem

So when we talk about the deepest Dharma Jewel or Gem, however you want to call it – it’s something which is rare and precious (dkon-mchog) is the way the Tibetans translate gem here, so it’s rare (dkon), it’s precious (mchog) – what we’re talking about is this actual state of true stopping of suffering and the attainment of a true pathway of mind that will bring that about and result from it. So this is something that we need to attain ourselves, which means that we need to be convinced that it’s actually possible to attain this. Therefore we have this discussion of the two truths and the four truths to help us to understand that it is possible to attain it, that there is such a thing as liberation, and how it can come about.

The Buddha Gem

And the Buddhas are those who have attained it in full – so not just Shakyamuni Buddha but many Buddhas – and they have taught us and indicated ways in which we can actually attain that ourselves, indicated in two ways: one with their teachings, and the other just with the way that they are, based on their understanding. That by the way is a very important point. We can demonstrate and help others to learn both with verbal teachings but also by our example of being a living example of what we are teaching. So this is another indication that we’re talking about not just some abstract teaching but that people actually embody it when they teach it and they inspire us to follow their example.

The Sangha Gem

And the Arya Sangha – the Third Gem – some people think, “Why do you need this Third Gem? Isn’t the Buddha and the Dharma enough?” And although the monastic community, monks and nuns, represent the Sangha, that’s not the actual Sangha Gem, just like the statues and paintings represent the Buddhas and the books represent the Dharma. That’s not the actual deepest point. It’s just a representation. As a symbol of something that represents the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, these statues, paintings, books, and monks and nuns help us to make a focus for showing respect, because it’s not so easy to show respect to something a little bit more abstract. But there’s much more deeper meaning to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

This Sangha Gem is very important. So why? Sangha is referring to the aryas, those who have seen nonconceptually the four noble truths based on the two truths (relative and deepest truth). They have cognized or perceived these nonconceptually, and as a result they have achieved a little bit of true stopping and a little bit of true pathway mind, not the whole thing yet, but part. That point is very important – because if we look at the four noble truths, how are they defined? They’re defined as noble truths, the arya truths. These are what aryas, those who have nonconceptual cognition of reality, see as true. So what does that tell us? That tells us that:

  • First of all, it’s not only Buddhas who perceive all of this and attain true stoppings and true pathway minds. Rather, it is a gradual process.

  • And even before attaining liberation or enlightenment, we start to chip away and get rid of varying aspects of the true sufferings, because we’re getting rid of true causes.

So it’s a gradual process, and it starts long before becoming a Buddha or becoming an arhat, a liberated being. So this gives us an example that is a little bit easier to relate to than the example of a Buddha. The Arya Sangha still have some problems and so on, still have some suffering – they’re not free from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, but they’re free of part of it – so it’s easier to relate to. And so it gives us encouragement and inspiration that gradually, step by step, if we go in the safe direction of achieving true stoppings and true pathway minds, we can get there to the ultimate goal, liberation and enlightenment. So even if we’re not able to go all the way yet to liberation and enlightenment, we will free ourselves already of some degree of suffering, because we will free ourselves of some degree of unawareness that causes the suffering. It’s just a matter of how much we can stay completely focused on reality. If you’re still an arya, you can’t stay focused on it all the time. If you’re a Buddha, you can stay focused on it all the time.

Now, in my presentation, I haven’t been making a difference between liberation and enlightenment. Those are not the same. Liberation is liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and with that attainment we become what’s known as an arhat, a liberated being. But enlightenment is more than that. So not only are we free of what is called the emotional obscurations – so these disturbing emotions and this unawareness of how we exist and how everything exists – but we’re also free of what’s called the cognitive obscurations.

In other words, because of the habits of believing in these projections of what’s impossible – impossible ways of knowing – our mental activity continues to make these projections, and we believe that they correspond to reality, so then we get our disturbing emotions. When we gain liberation, we gain that by stopping believing that these appearances, these so-called deceptive appearances, correspond to reality. So you stop believing in it. “This is garbage. It appears like that, but that’s not the way that things actually are.” So still our perception, what appears to us, is limited, and still things tend to appear to exist in boxes, in a sense, everything encapsulated by itself in plastic, but we know that’s not the way that things exist.

Even on a very simple level, if you think in terms of atomic physics, you have the atoms, then you have force fields and energy fields and things like that. There’s no solid, concrete line around any object that says, “On this side of the line, there’s the object. And on that side of the line, there isn’t.” So things are not as concrete as they appear to us.

But if we get rid of these cognitive obscurations – what is causing us to make these deceptive appearances, our mental activity to make these deceptive appearances – then the mind stops projecting them, and we gain enlightenment. When we gain enlightenment, we see the interconnectedness of absolutely everything simultaneously. And what is most relevant is that then we’re able to see with each individual person all the causes and conditions which have affected the way they are now, and we would see what are the results of anything that we would teach them, and so we’d see what would be the most skillful way to help lead them to liberation and enlightenment themselves.

When we talk about aryas, we’re not just talking about the bodhisattva aryas – the bodhisattva aryas are the ones that are aiming for enlightenment – we’re also talking about those aryas that are aiming only for liberation. So when we talk about the Three Jewels in the context of safe direction, or refuge, we’re talking about those that are aiming either for only liberation or also for liberation and enlightenment, not just bodhisattvas aiming for enlightenment.

Developing a Firm Conviction in the Three Gems

So anyway, if we understand the two truths and, on the basis of that, we understand the four truths – how we get into samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and how we can get out of that – if we understand that, then we become firmly convinced that the deepest Dharma Gem, the deepest Dharma Jewel, actually exists: it’s a fact; there is such a thing. We understand very clearly that this confusion which brings about these deceptive appearances of what’s impossible – that this confusion is not an innate feature or characteristic of our mental activity. Why? Because you can get rid of it. If you focus on the exact opposite of unawareness – in other words, you focus with awareness of the two truths of how things exist – then you don’t have these deceptive appearances, and you certainly don’t believe in them. So if you stay focused on this awareness, this true path – if you stay focused on that all the time, then you will have a true stopping of the unawareness or ignorance. And this is backed by logic. You can corroborate it, that this conforms to reality, and it produces this effect: you no longer have that up-and-down suffering of unhappiness and ordinary happiness, and you no longer have uncontrollably recurring existence.

So now you could object, and you could say, “Well, if you stayed focused on unawareness all the time, then you wouldn’t have understanding or awareness. So which one is stronger, staying focused all the time with unawareness that does not conform with reality or staying focused on awareness which does conform with reality? So from the point of view of analysis, when you investigate, then there’s nothing substantial backing up our unawareness, these deceptive projections, whereas logic does support the correct understanding: things do arise from causes and conditions; they don’t exist all by themselves, popping out of nowhere. Plus if we stay focused with awareness, correct understanding, all the time, it does produce its effect: we no longer experience suffering or samsaric rebirth. On the other hand, if we stay focused on unawareness, confusion, all the time, that also produces its effect, which is suffering. So here we have the four noble truths again. So what are we aiming for? Do you want to suffer forever all the time? If you do, then stay focused on unawareness, and you’ll suffer all the time. You’re welcome to it. But if you want to be free from it, which is the goal of the spiritual path, then it’s perfectly clear that you have to stay focused with awareness, with understanding, all the time, based on reality.

So with this way of approaching the topic of refuge – as it says, it’s brought on by valid cognition, and then our conviction that these three refuges are fact becomes firm. So we’re no longer presuming that “If I go in this direction, it’ll free me from suffering.” So we’re not basing our refuge, our spiritual path, on just presuming that it’s true, which is just a good guess – and that guess would be based on faith (because my teachers say so, and so on) – but it’s based on valid cognition. We are working on the basis of valid cognition coming from basically inferential understanding, logic.

There are two ways of having valid cognition. There is through inference or logic, and then there is straightforward cognition, which would be like seeing or hearing or experiencing it ourselves. Now, the problem with that second one is that you have to be very, very advanced before you’re ever going to experience it yourself. So where do we start before that? That’s why we start with inference as the basis for valid cognition.

Progressing on the Spiritual Path

Now we have the fourth line:

Inspire me to implant this root of the pathway minds that lead to liberation.

When we talk about the pathway minds to liberation, this can be presented in many, many ways. One of the ways of presenting it is according to the three scopes of motivation, what’s often known by the Tibetan term “lam-rim” (graded stages). So this is aiming for three progressive goals:

  • The first goal is to avoid worse rebirths and to gain better rebirths. We want to gain the better rebirth states that have much less suffering, because then we will have the optimum conditions for being able to continue on the spiritual path. If we are reborn as a cockroach, there’s not much that we can do in terms of our spiritual development during a lifetime as a cockroach. So we already saw that in order to avoid worse rebirths, we have to get rid of our unawareness or confusion about relative truth, which is cause and effect. The main cause for worse rebirths is destructive behavior, and you act destructively because you’re unaware of the consequences of that, or you think that it has the reverse consequences (that it will make you happy).

  • And the intermediate scope is to aim for liberation from all three types of suffering (unhappiness, our ordinary happiness, and the basis for that, our uncontrollably recurring rebirth). So for that we need to get rid of – true stopping – the unawareness about deepest truth, deepest reality, so voidness. But not just gain the awareness of voidness – we need to gain the understanding of all four noble truths all the time. But it’s very difficult to stay focused on all of that simultaneously all the time, so we need to go further.

  • The advanced scope is to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha so that we can help everybody else. So while staying focused on deepest truth, to understand fully relative truth. Only a Buddha can stay focused on the two truths simultaneously all the time.

So it’s very, very interesting. If we look deeper at this line – from the two truths, the four truths; from the four truths, the three refuges – it says that this is the root of these three scopes (the initial, intermediate, and advanced scopes of motivation) and the practices and insights that will lead to these three goals. It says this is the root. Right? A root is not a seed. A root is what gives stability and gives strength to a plant. So if we are convinced on the basis of logic that these three goals are attainable, that they exist, and it’s not unrealistic but totally realistic that we can attain them, then of course that gives us stability that supports the entire spiritual path toward that goal.

But in other presentations, we find – and these presentations are perhaps more frequent than this presentation – we find that the root of these three scopes is the healthy relation with the spiritual teacher. That’s what you find in I think all of the lam-rim texts, at least the ones that I’m familiar with. And that healthy relation with the spiritual teacher is the root of the entire spiritual path in the sense that you gain inspiration from the teacher, and that inspiration is what gives you the strength and the energy to be able to continue toward these goals.

So here again we find two variations of how one can proceed on the spiritual path in a stable type of way:

  • One way is having as our root, or strength, the relation with the spiritual teacher, the inspiration and so on. So based on that, we use a type of logic which is that “My teacher is a valid source of information. Therefore what the teacher says, that it is possible to gain enlightenment, is correct. There’s no reason why the teacher would make that up.” So there’s a certain type of logic that is involved here. But if you look at it from the point of view of how most people experience it, it’s experienced more on an emotional type of level. You’re so emotionally inspired by the teacher that this gives you the strength to go on the path. So this is similar to these two ways of developing bodhichitta mentioned before, that first – the relative bodhichitta – you’re so drawn by wanting to help others that you’re drawn to enlightenment, and it’s after that that you become totally convinced that it is possible to achieve it.

  • On the other hand – reflecting the mode of practice with which we first develop this deepest bodhichitta – we develop conviction in voidness in the way that we just described in our verse here (gaining conviction that the goal is possible to achieve), and on the basis of that, we develop the more emotional side of actually working toward enlightenment, opening up our heart, etc.

So both are valid ways of approaching the spiritual path, and it all depends on what our basic scope or capacity is. The way that it is described in the text is that those of very sharp faculties and intellect would find it more suitable to their personality to rely on this logical presentation; and those that are not as sharp in their intellect (in other words, they work more on an emotional dimension), for them what works best is this relying on the inspiration from the teacher and the emotion that is developed in terms of love and compassion, that that’s the basis.

In many ways, I think that we need to balance both approaches. I have an article on my web site that I wrote which deals with approaching the Dharma in an intellectual, emotional, and devotional way. So there are three ways if we add the devotional aspect to it. And I think it’s very important not to put down other ways of approaching the Buddhist path just because it is more comfortable for us to approach it in one particular style, in one particular way, because if we are to develop ourselves fully in terms of all our potentials and so on, we need a balance of all three approaches.

So this is the basic presentation of this particular verse in this particular prayer by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A lot of meaning can be milked out of this, as my teacher always used to say; you can milk (like milking from a cow) a lot of meaning from all the words.

Questions and Answers

Now we have time for questions.

Practical Application of the Four Noble Truths

Participant: If a friend of mine is worrying or has problems, or something like that, I can give advice: “Take it easy. Relax. Don’t take it too seriously.” And so this is kind of a reminder that I can give to other people or perhaps to myself. But what about in terms of our selfishness? If there’s a situation when I have emotions, I have selfishness, and I need actually to do something to deal with people, is there some sort of reminder to remind myself, maybe a mantra or some phrase or some word, in order not to forget? I can keep this reminder in my mind and not forget that I need to see where is the projection of my selfish mind and where is the reality.

Alex: According to Tsongkhapa, a great Tibetan master, he says that except for when we are focused nonconceptually on voidness, at all other times our mental activity is projecting impossible ways of existing – so deceptive appearances – that that’s happening all the time. So the object of refutation is every moment of our experience other than that deep meditation. You don’t have to go far to find it; it’s the appearance of every moment, how things appear to you.

There are many things, little aids, that can help us to deconstruct the appearance that we perceive. I outlined them in Developing Balanced Sensitivity, this e-book that I have on my web site. It’s also a published book.

One image that is helpful is to “pop the balloon” of the fantasy. But you have to do this in a nondualistic way. It’s not as though there’s a separate me with a pin, and here’s the appearance, and you pop the balloon. It’s just that the balloon is popped, which is the exaggeration of how things exist. So you need to recognize what is this deceptive appearance. The deceptive appearance can be that “You are so horrible” or “This situation is so horrible.” And we don’t even see it within the context of all the causes and conditions and everybody else who has something similar, and so on; it just becomes “This horrible thing” and “Poor me. I’m suffering from this.” So you just imagine that balloon pops. I know you are a filmmaker, and so you could imagine that in a scene in a movie, sort of graphically the whole appearance on the screen sort of just explodes, and then you have something else that is behind the reality. So this could be a useful image for someone like yourself.

Another image that I use in this Developing Balanced Sensitivity is that what we’re doing is like a book opened with two pages. One page here is “Poor me suffering from this horrible situation,” and the other page is of this terrible situation that I can’t handle or is so horrible. And so it’s like a horrible fairytale. And then you just have the mental image of the book closing; end of fairytale. So that’s another image that can be used that can be helpful. That’s closing the book of dualism, to put it in more of a jargon way of describing it.

Or if you want to use mantra, I have a very unconventional mantra that I personally use, which is a little bit rude, but the mantra is “Bullshit.” “The way that it’s appearing to me, this is bullshit. This is not the way things are.” You must have a similar word in Russian.

Translator: If we translate literally bull and shit, we’ll have something…

Alex: Something quite different, yes. But do you have something equivalent? Right. Something like that.

These are ways that can help us. The problem is to remember. And the time when it is most easy to identify the need for this type of approach is when we’re experiencing a very strong disturbing emotion. The one that is the favorite of the Tibetans is when you are falsely accused of something that you didn’t do. Then very strongly: “I didn’t do that! What do you mean, that I’m a liar or that I’m a cheat?” or something like that. Then this strong sense of a solid me comes up the strongest. So that’s the example that is found in the Tibetan texts most frequently.


Participant: You mentioned that one way to discipline our mind and to go toward spiritual goals is meditation. But now we hear this word everywhere, and it means different things. In Buddhism particularly, what meaning does this word have? Can you maybe simply explain how to do it? Or if that’s too difficult, maybe you can just in general explain the meaning.

Alex: Meditation (Tib. sgom, Skt. bhavana) – literally the Tibetan word means “to make something a habit,” “to habituate ourselves to a beneficial state of mind.” And it’s done by means of what is usually called in plain language practice. And practice means repetition, doing it over and over again, like in a physical training. So it’s a mental training (but not just an intellectual training; it’s also an emotional training). And in Sanskrit the word for it, the connotation, is “to become that.” In other words, “to make it happen.” So you make it happen by habituating yourself so that it will naturally automatically occur, this beneficial state of mind.

There are many things that would be beneficial to have all the time:

  • There could be just a general awareness of what’s going on all the time, so you focus on the breath as a way to gain that.

  • Or concentration – your mind isn’t wandering or dull. That would be a very beneficial state of mind, so you have to practice it, try and do it over and over again.

  • Or staying in a particular state of mind, like an emotional state – love, compassion, patience. Particularly when you have let’s say anger, to practice eliminating the basis for that anger by developing love and understanding.

  • Or accustoming ourselves, habituating ourselves, to stay focused on reality.

Each of these types of meditation are based on:

  1. Hearing. In other words, getting the correct information and instructions and gaining certainty that I got the correct instructions and I heard it right.

  1. And then thinking about it until I understand what it means and I’m convinced that it is true and worthwhile for me to develop and convinced that I’m capable of developing this state of mind.

So it is correct, and it is worthwhile to do. It is possible to do, and not just possible in general to do, but I personally can do it. So that it’s correct, it’s something that I would want to attain, and something that I can attain.

  1. And then meditation, to generate this state of mind – or whatever it is that we’re focusing on – to generate it and to practice over and over again trying to stay focused with it. That’s meditation.

So being relaxed, quieting down – that is not the ultimate aim of meditation; that’s sort of the initial state from which we would start. So to just use meditation for getting relaxed, the analogy that they use is that it’s like using a very sophisticated gun to shoot cockroaches. You’re using it for some very trivial reason. It can help you to relax. Meditation can help you relax of course, but you can use it for a much more significant purpose than that.

The Difference between Buddhism and Other Dharmic Religions

Participant: You mentioned that there are Dharmic religions and that each of them says that there is some kind of problem and there is liberation from this problem. And of course each religion says that its methods are the best. Could you explain what is specific to Buddhism from this point of view?

Alex: Well, that’s correct. Each of these Dharmic religions that I mentioned – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism – are talking about gaining liberation from rebirth, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and describe what a state of liberation would be like. And each of them says that the way to attain that liberation is through understanding reality the way that they describe reality. So Buddhism fits completely within the context of an Indian religion. What is distinctive about Buddhism are the four noble truths. This is what Buddha taught:

  • That the others might describe what is suffering, but here is the true suffering, what Buddha saw as the true suffering.

  • And the others might say that a certain type of unawareness is the cause of suffering, but hey, this is the true cause, the deepest type of unawareness.

  • And this is the true stopping of suffering. What you might consider the true stopping of suffering doesn’t last forever, or it’s not completely free, so this is the true one.

  • And the understanding that you speak of may get you to a certain state, but it doesn’t take you all the way.

Now, of course the others will say the same thing back about Buddhism, so one has to really investigate what is reality. Because as we saw in our verse here, the whole foundation for the spiritual path – and this is true I think in Hinduism as well as Jainism, not just in Buddhism – is the view of reality, and so that’s what has to be tested by logic and experience and understanding.

There is a big difference between whether one is following a spiritual path for gaining liberation or one is following a spiritual path more in terms of becoming in this lifetime a kinder person, more compassionate, and so on. So if you speak in terms of the attainment of liberation or enlightenment, then you can investigate that on the basis of logic and debate and come to some conclusion as to which explanation is the most valid. But if we look at how the vast majority of people practice a spiritual path, it’s not really aiming for liberation and enlightenment. They might say it is, but they have no idea what that actually means, and really they’re following it just to try to be a better person and improve their life in this lifetime, which is fine; nothing wrong with that.

So in terms of that, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked which is the best religion, he said the best religion is the religion that helps you individually to become a kinder and more compassionate person. So for each person it’s different. So from that point of view, there’s no real debate as to which is a more valid path for developing compassion, kindness, patience, forgiveness, these sort of qualities. They can be developed equally according to many different religions. So this is the basis for religious harmony.

Dream Yoga

Participant: We spend most of our time, or quite a significant part of our time, in dreams. Is it possible to use this time to achieve enlightenment?

Alex: Yes, definitely. There is something known as dream yoga. And the point is to be able to recognize that one is dreaming without waking up in the process of recognizing it – which is a big danger here – and then within that dream state, to use that dream state for certain types of meditation that it’s most conducive for:

  • On one level the dream state is very conducive for doing the visualization practices in tantra, because you don’t have any distraction from the senses, and the visualizations that you have are the most vivid.

  • And the deeper use is to focus on the nature of the dream, which is that the dream appears to correspond to reality, but it doesn’t; it’s like an illusion. So it trains us to recognize that appearances are like an illusion. The way that things appear to us when we’re awake, like the way that they appear to us when we are asleep, doesn’t correspond to the way that things actually exist. Although what you do in a dream and what you do when you are awake have very different consequences, so they are not exactly the same.

Anything else?

Participant: Maybe just short answers, practical answers.

Alex: Okay. Thank you for reminding me that I give answers that are too long. Bad habit of mine.

How to Progress on the Spiritual Path

Participant: My first question is in terms of how to proceed with the spiritual path. For instance, in the Soviet Union we had the five-year plan for economic development.

Alex: Not a realistic one.

Participant: In the same way, maybe you can give some advice on what people who just started their Buddhist practice could do for one or three or five years – maybe what books to read and which meditations to practice, etc. – in order to prevent us from going astray.

Alex: Well, the most common and reliable way of pursuing the spiritual path, at least in the traditions in which I was trained, is working through the lam-rim, the graded stages. And there are many, many presentations of this that are available now (including in Russian) in books, on my web site, etc. And here you have cumulative, step by step what we need to understand and digest and develop in order to progress on the spiritual path.

Now, the traditional way of following it is that – and this is the way that I learned it because that was way, way back before anything was translated – you just get one point, and you have no idea what’s coming next, and you have to work with it, and then you’ll get the next point. Nowadays that’s not possible, because the whole path is laid out in books, so you can read the whole thing. But one needs to spend a significant amount of time with each point. Even after you maybe have read the whole thing, go back and work with each point, and see how it’s interconnected with all the other points.

And always remember that progress is never linear; it always goes up and down. It’s never going to be the case that it gets better and better each time you meditate. So whether it goes well or it doesn’t go well, there’s nothing special about that. You just continue. No big deal. This was the reincarnation of my teacher’s favorite phrase: “It’s nothing special.” There’s nothing special about what you experience. It goes well. It doesn’t go well. So what?

So to set a five-year plan and so on, this is unrealistic because for each person the way that we make progress is different. However, this point of five years is what the Dalai Lama points out when he says, “How do you know that you’ve made any progress? Don’t look day to day or month to month, but look in terms of five-year periods, for example, and compare how you deal with difficult situations now compared to five years ago. Are you more calm? Are you able to deal with difficulties in a more relaxed way? That’s an indication of progress.”

So this is the tradition in which I was raised. And I should mention that many other styles are there. For instance, doing ngondro, so called preliminary practices, in which you do a hundred thousand of prostration and refuge formula, and all these sort of things. And often that’s the way that people start, with a little bit of preliminary teaching. And I think that these two approaches reflect the two ways of approaching the Dharma teachings that I’ve been explaining.

When you begin this ngondro, these preliminary practices, very early in your spiritual practice, that’s usually on the basis of inspiration from a teacher. You meet a teacher. You’re very, very inspired. And you might not yet be convinced logically that it’s possible to achieve the goal, but because you are so moved by the spiritual teacher and confident that what he’s explaining will be beneficial, then you do it; you do the ngondro. That’s fine. It works.

The approach that I was trained with is more the approach that I was explaining from this verse, the one that the Dalai Lama himself teaches usually, which is that first you gain conviction and understanding of the path – that it is possible, what the goal is, etc. – and then you do the ngondro.

And obviously one can do a middle path between them. While starting early with the ngondro, you work to gain conviction in the possibility that the goal is attainable. Or while you’re doing this study and practice, you can already start ngondro. So there are different ways of putting them together. I think this reflects, if one really starts to think about the way that different Tibetan teachers teach the Dharma, that it fits within this structure that I was explaining, which goes back to Nagarjuna, the two different ways of developing bodhichitta – first relative then deepest, or first deepest and then relative. So one has to decide for oneself what suits oneself best.

So let’s end here then with how we usually end a Buddhist teaching, which is with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force comes from this, may it act as a cause for everyone to achieve liberation and enlightenment for the benefit of us all.

Okay. Thank you very much.