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Introductory Survey of Lam-rim

Alexander Berzin
Bucharest, Romania, June 2009

Session One: Introduction

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:26 hours)

Today I have been asked to present the lam-rim graded stages of the path. This is a very vast topic as we can see in this translation of Tsongkhapa’s presentation of it – three volumes, there’s a lot of material. Obviously we can’t cover it in any detail. To present a menu of everything that is in it, although obviously to give you an idea of what it is, it’s necessary to go through, at least roughly, what the contents of this material are.

First of all what is the topic of this material? This material is presenting a way to access and integrate the basic teachings of the Buddha. Buddha lived two and a half thousand years ago. He lived with a community of monks that followed him. Later there was also a community of nuns that also joined. Not only did he teach them, but he was invited along with his monks to various people’s homes, given a meal and then after that he would be asked to give a talk, so he gave a talk.

Buddha always taught with what was called skillful means or skillful methods, which means that he taught what each person who invited him would be able to understand. So obviously some people were more spiritually developed than others and some people were more intelligent than others, so he taught various things.

Buddha’s followers had phenomenal memories. So at that time nothing was written down, but his monks remembered what he said and then passed it down orally to later generations. These eventually were written down several centuries later and became known as the sutras. Then, centuries later, the great Indian Buddhist masters wrote commentaries and tried to organize and put the material together. One Indian master who came to Tibet, his name was Atisha, he made the prototype of this presentation, the lam-rim. This was at the beginning of the eleventh century so a long time after Buddha.

What he presented was a way in which each person could develop themselves eventually toward the state of a Buddha. In other words, to just read the sutras by themselves does not necessarily give us a clear spiritual path of how we start from now all the way up to Buddhahood. But from all the material that Buddha taught, we can put it together to discover what would be stage one, stage two, stage three, etc.

This is what the lam-rim does: it presents this material in a graded order. After Atisha, there were many different more elaborate versions that were written in Tibet. What we have here is the version which was written by Tsongkhapa, which is probably the largest of elaboration of this material. It was written in the beginning of the fifteenth century. Two of the outstanding features of this material is that Tsongkhapa finds back in the sutras and in the India commentaries all the quotations that support this material, from which all this material derives, where it comes from. This gives us confidence that he is not just making this up. Also he gives very elaborate logical demonstrations of all the various points, so that we have even stronger confidence in the validity of this based on logic and reason. One of the special characteristics of Tsongkhapa is that he never skips over the most difficult points. In fact he always focuses on the most difficult ones that previous authors tended to just skip over.

Of the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions what follows from Tsongkhapa is known as the Gelugpa tradition.

How do we structure a spiritual path? This is really the question. There are many different methods which have been taught in general in India. Methods for developing concentration, for instance, were common material that we find in all the other Indian traditions at the time of the Buddha. Buddha did not make that up. But the question is how do we bring it into our spiritual path and the same things with regard to all the other facets of how we develop ourselves.

The Buddha, of course, had different understandings, different explanations of many of these points, but what really is specific is his understanding of the spiritual goals. The main principle in which this is speaking, what is graded, is our motivation.

The term for this literature is “ lam-rim.” “ Lam” is usually translated as “path.” but it doesn’t mean something that you walk on. Rather, it’s talking about states of mind that act as a path for reaching a goal. “ Rim” means stages of that, graded stages. What it’s speaking about then are various states of mind, levels of minds, that we need to develop in a graded order. They are called a path because they lead to a goal. Again the goal that we would aim to achieve is something that can be presented in a graded order. For instance, if we want to go here in Romania to let’s say India, well that would be the ultimate aim to reach India. But to get there, first you might have to go, if we are going overland to Turkey, and then we might need to get to Iran and then eventually to India.

What is graded here, then, is usually referred to as our motivation. Motivation as we have seen before is a two-part thing, according to the way it’s presented in Buddhism. Motivation is connected to a certain goal or aim that we have, plus an emotion that drives us to reach that goal. Actually a little bit more precise is a reason why we want to reach the goal plus an emotion that drives us there.

This makes sense in terms of our usual lives. We have various goals at different stages in our life, to get an education: to find a lifetime partner, to find a good job etc. There are valid reasons for wanting to have a good education, wanting to have a good job, and so on. There are of course some negative emotions that might be involved; there can be positive emotions that can be involved. This differs from person to person. In any case, this presentation of graduated motivations is something which deals with life, ordinary life.

The same thing is true is terms of spiritual motivations. These are states of mind which are completely relevant to our daily lives. So, on the one hand, what am I doing with my life? On a regular, what we call a “worldly level,” having a family, having a job etc. What are we doing on a spiritual level? That also goes hand in hand, it affects how we live. It is very important that these two aspects of our lives not be contradictory and not be exclusive to each other, but that they somehow go together harmoniously.

Not only do they go together harmoniously, but each supports the other. Our spiritual life gives us strength to lead our usual worldly life; our worldly life gives us the resources to be able to do our spiritual life. Everything that we learn through these graded stages of the lam-rim are things that need to be applied to our everyday life.

Now, what we are doing, then, with Buddhist practice is presented here. Buddhist practice in general I think can be summed up in a few words. We are working on ourselves, working on ourselves in order to become, to use general terminology, to become better persons. Although that term “ better person” sounds like a judgment and we don’t want to imply judgment here, but I think that you get the general idea.

We are trying to overcome destructive behavior, negative emotions, like anger and greed, selfishness etc. Now, Buddhism isn’t exclusive in the sense that it’s not the only system of religion or philosophy or practice that aims for this type of goal. We find the same thing in Christianity, we find it in Islam, we find it in Judaism, we find it in Humanitarianism, in Hinduism. It’s there everywhere. The Buddhist methods that we find can help us achieve this type of goal. We can even approach these goals becoming a better person in a graded way. We would first want to stop acting in a destructive way, causing harm. For that we would have to exercise some self-control. And then, on a deeper level, once we are able to exercise some self-control, we would focus on overcoming what causes us to act destructively: anger, greed, attachment, jealously and so on. For that we would need to understand how these negative emotions or destructive emotions work, how they rise and so on, and develop certain types of understanding that would help to lessen or eliminate these disturbing emotions.

On a deeper level we would need to work on what is really underlying all these disturbing emotions and that would be our selfishness, self-centered, thinking only of ourselves: “I always have to have my way,” and if we don’t then we get angry. We always want things to be the way that we want them to be. Why should everything be like we want it to be? There is absolutely no reason, except that I want it to be like that. Everybody thinks the same and we can’t all be correct. So, we would gradually work ourselves up to the point where we could try to overcome this most fundamental troublemaker: our selfishness, self- centeredness, which, as we go deeper, depends on our concept of “me,” my “self.” In other words, our concept of how we exist. To put it very simply, we think that I am something special. It’s like I am the center of the universe, I am the important one, independent of everybody else. We have to investigate and obviously there is something very mistaken about that. That’s quite distorted. So this is a graduated path, we could say a way of developing understanding or developing states of mind.

As I said, the methods that Buddha taught are very, very helpful for these type of goals. Basically, we would want to avoid destructive behavior and disturbing emotions, like anger and selfishness for a reason. The reason would probably be because we understand that when we act under the influence of these things, it causes problems and we don’t want to have these problems. It’s not very pleasant at all.

We could also approach this problem-making or trouble-making in a graduated way. If I act like this, it produces problems and difficulties right now. We get into a big fight with somebody; we could get hurt or thrown in jail if we injured them severely. Then on a deeper level we would think in a longer term way: I want to avoid trouble in the future not just right now. So we’re talking about later in my life. We develop ourselves a little bit further: we would also want to avoid causing trouble and problems for our family, for our loved ones, our society. All of that is within the boundaries of this lifetime. But we could even think further and think in terms of: I want to avoid causing problems and troubles to future generations, like the problem of global warming.

With all of these motivations, it is not that we give up the earlier ones when we develop the later ones, but they are accumulative; they add to each other. This is the general principle of the graded path. But what I have described here is what I would call “Dharma lite.” I have made up these terms “Dharma lite” and “real thing Dharma” in parallel to Coca Cola lite and real thing Coca Cola.

Dharma” is a Sanskrit word referring to the teachings of the Buddha. “Lite” means that it is helpful – not that there is anything wrong with it, but it is not the strong, real version. In the actual presentation of the lam-rim we find that the Tibetan traditions, that is the real thing. But this real thing Dharma is for most of us too strong to start with. And the main reason for that is that it totally assumes that we fully believe in rebirth. So everything that is in here is based on that premise, that there is rebirth and then we start working for improving future lives, avoiding trouble in future lives etc.

If we don’t believe in future lives, how can we possibly be sincere in our motivation to improve our future lives? This is not possible. For us who have questions about future lives, about rebirth, past and future and who certainly are not convinced of it – maybe we don’t even understand it – we have to start with Dharma lite. Be honest with ourselves in terms of what am I actually aiming for in my spiritual practice. For most of us, what we are aiming for is to make this life a little bit better. That is a valid aim. But that’s just a first step, but a very necessary step. When we are at that level of Dharma lite, then what is very necessary is to acknowledge that this is Dharma lite; this is not the real thing. Not to confuse the two, because if we confuse the two, then we reduce Buddhism merely to another form of therapy. That’s not fair to Buddhism. We also need to acknowledge that the real thing Dharma and what they’re talking about… I don’t even understand what they are talking about, let alone believe that it is true.

But I will be open-minded about it and say, “OK, maybe this is correct what they are talking about – future lives, liberation and enlightenment, all these things – and meanwhile, I will work on the Dharma lite level and as I develop myself more and more and study more and meditate more, then maybe I will understand what they are talking about in the real thing Dharma.” Like that is a perfectly valid and sound way of proceeding, based on respect for Buddha, that Buddha wasn’t speaking just nonsense when he spoke about these things.

Also, what we might acknowledge is that certain ideas that we might have of what future lives mean and what liberation, what enlightenment might mean, that maybe they’re quite incorrect. And maybe Buddhism wouldn’t accept that either, about future lives, about liberation, about enlightenment. What they mean, what I think they mean and I think this is ridiculous, Buddha might also say it’s ridiculous because it’s a wrong understanding of it. Like some soul with wings that flies out of the body and then enters into another body – Buddha would not accept that either, or that we could become God himself, herself, or itself.

So that’s the basics and all of the methods or at least most of the methods that are presented in this graded path can be applied in the Dharma lite way or a real thing Dharma way, although some of the methods really depend on understanding future lives. In order to be able to develop equal love toward everybody, one of the methods is to recognize that if everybody has had beginningless rebirth and there is a finite number of beings, then it follows logically that everybody at some time has been our mother and at some time we have been the mother of everybody. One could present a mathematical proof of a logic of this, of no beginning but finite number of beings, that it’s like this. If there was infinite time but infinite number of beings then you couldn’t prove it. It works this way.

So that is very difficult to relate to if we don’t think in terms of infinite previous rebirth. On that basis, then we think in terms of motherly love and appreciating it and wanting to be nice in return, etc. And there’s a whole development that’s based on it. It is just a matter of time of when this person or that person was our mother. If we haven’t seen our mother in ten minutes or ten days or ten years, she’s still my mother, so similarly if we haven’t seen her in ten lifetimes then she’s still my mother. This is a way of thinking that can be very helpful if you believe in rebirth. If you don’t believe in rebirth, it’s nonsense.

Especially when we bring in mosquitoes, not just people: this mosquito was my mother in a previous lifetime. We have seen that rebirth can be in any form that has mental activity. We can have the Dharma lite version of this, which is that no matter who we see, it is quite possible that this person could bring us home, take care of us, feed us. Everybody is capable of that. If we have travelled, very often we find that complete strangers can be really very nice to us, offer us hospitality, etc. Everybody is capable of that, so everybody could act like a mother to me. This is true whether they are a woman or a man, it doesn’t matter. And even if they’re a child, well then when they are older they could help me like a mother, take care of me like a mother. That is very helpful. However it is quite limited because it’s very difficult to think that this mosquito could take me home and take care of me like a mother. That illustrates a little bit how we can have methods that can be applied on the Dharma lite level and the real thing Dharma level.

Both of them are very helpful, but the Dharma lite version is limited. The real thing opens up a much larger universe of possibilities. Whether we are applying a Dharma lite or a real thing Dharma method, the point is to apply it in daily life. When we are caught in traffic or waiting in a long queue for something or sitting in a bus and we get angry or impatient with the other people in the traffic or the other people in line, we can view all the other people as being like my mother either in some past life time where they could be nice to me or in this life time like a mother and it helps to quiet our anger and develop more patience. If our mother is ahead of us in the queue, we don’t mind that she gets served first. So, like this, in fact we probably would be happy that she can get served first. We always try to apply these understandings, we’re developing states of mind, not just that you have while you’re sitting on the meditation cushion, but they do apply in daily life.

This is what I mean when I describe this Dharma process as working on ourselves. When we meditate in a quiet and controlled atmosphere in our room, sitting on the cushion, or whatever position is comfortable, we are practicing generating these types of understanding, these more positive states of mind. We use our imagination to imagine other people, think of other people, and develop this attitude toward them. Although it is not a traditional method, nevertheless, I think that it’s perfectly valid to look at pictures of people as well in our meditation. They didn’t have pictures of people two and a half thousand years ago. I don’t think that there is a problem in adopting our modern technology to this process.

But when we have developed sufficient familiarity with this state of mind, this positive state of mind, then of course in our daily life we try to apply it. That’s the whole purpose, not to think loving thoughts while you’re siting on your cushion, but you get angry with your family and, at work, something is not working properly. It is very important not to regard or treat our meditation practice as an escape from life. “I will sit here and mediate and calm down” – it’s like an escape. Or to escape into some sort of fantasy land and think up all sorts of incredible things. Rather, what we are doing in our mediation practice is training to be able to deal with the problems of life.

It’s hard work and we shouldn’t fool ourselves or let ourselves be fooled by advertising that it is easy. It is not easy to overcome selfishness; these are not easy things to overcome, based on very, very deep habits. The only way to overcome them is to change our attitudes towards things and get rid of the confusion that underlies these destructive states of mind.

I think that that is enough of a basic introduction so let us have our break and then we can go from there.