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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Introductory Survey of Lam-rim

Alexander Berzin
Bucharest, Romania, June 2009

Session Two: Initial Level Motivation

Unedited Transcript
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We were speaking about the graded stages of the path. We saw that there is a Dharma lite version and a real thing Dharma version. We spoke a little bit about the difference between the two. Let us begin with a brief presentation of real thing.

We have three levels of motivation. The first level, the initial level, is to think in terms of ensuring that we have one of the better types of rebirth – not just in our next lifetime, but in all future lifetimes. Then the intermediate level is to gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth completely, in other words to become liberated in liberation. The advance level is to reach the state of a Buddha, in order to be able to help everybody else get free of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

It is quite obvious from that, that each of these levels is based on the assumption of rebirth. Nevertheless, as we discussed earlier, each of the methods that’s presented in the body of material for each of these three levels could be applied on the Dharma lite level. I think that it is quite important not to minimize and trivialize these levels of motivation; they really are quite remarkable if we can develop them in a sincere way.

This initial level, the first thing that we need to understand and realize is to appreciate what is called the “precious human life” that we have. Even on a Dharma lite level, this is very helpful for overcoming the feeling of “poor me” or depression that comes from that. We think of all the more terrible situations that we could be in and try to appreciate how wonderful it is that we are not in those situations. We can think in general terms; it is not necessary to go through the list that we find in the standard presentation, but how fortunate that we are not living in a war zone, that we are not living in the midst of a terrible famine or starving to death, we can’t feed our children, that we are not living under a severe dictatorship, a restrictive society. Those of you who are older obviously can relate to that more easily. How fortunate that we are not severely handicapped, either mentally or physically or emotionally. Obviously from a Buddhist point of view, how fortunate we are that we are not a cockroach and anybody who sees us wants to step on us.

There are many extensions of this type of thinking, but actually if we look at ourselves objectively, we really are very fortunate that we have these freedoms. Not only do we have the freedom from these things or liberty, we need to understand that we could lose that freedom at any time, for instance with Alzheimer’s disease. Now there is a terrible economic crisis and things could get even worse than they are.

Actually, the word that is used here to describe these states is a “respite.” That means a brief break from having worse situations. It could be lost at any time. Then also we think in terms of the various factors that enrich our life. For instance most of us, we are healthy. Obviously many of us might be sick, but able to function. There are teachings available, Buddha taught them and they have been passed down and are available. There are teachers and there are books that are starting to be translated into your own language. There are people who support and make facilities like this possible. So we have many, many opportunities that are available to us. In this situation we need to learn to recognize it, the freedoms and enrichments that we have. Not just recognize it and acknowledge it, but really very deeply appreciate how fortunate we are.

That is where we start. Then the next point is that this is not going to last forever and not just maybe situations could change during our lifetime, but the fact is that we are all going to die. So we have a great deal of meditation about death. Many people in many societies try to ignore death. It is sort of a taboo topic to talk about or think about. We don’t really accept the reality that at some point we are going to die, so are our loved ones and everyone that we know. This is reality. There are many reasons to support the fact that we are going to die. Everybody who has ever lived has died, so why am I special or any different from that. The reason for dying is being born, isn’t it? Ultimately that is the reason: if we are born, what follows is we are going to die, because this body is very weak and it falls apart as it gets older. It is not strong; it can get injured very easily. One has to convince oneself logically that this is the case so that slowly it will sink in on an emotional level.

The second point in addition to the fact that for sure we are going to die, the second point is that we can never guarantee when. You don’t have to be old to die; you don’t have to be sick to die. There are many examples that we can see for that. There was just this big plane accident and nobody expected that when they got on that plane, that it would crash. We could get hit by a bus anytime. My closest friend had a heart attack and died two weeks ago. He was perfectly health, fifty-four, not very old.

There are many reasons that support that death can come at any time. Death is not going to wait for us to finish our work, whatever we are doing. We can’t say to death, “Wait a minute. Just let me finish this.” When death comes it comes, finished. When our time is over there is nothing that we can do really to extend it. You cannot bribe death. Just have our body supported on a life support machine? If we are a vegetable, what is the point in that? Even then it ends at some point, doesn’t it?

The third point is what is going to be of any help at the point of death. You can’t take it with you in terms of money, in terms of friends and family. Even if we build a pyramid and put them all in there with us when we die, they are not going to come with us. So what is going to be of help? From the Buddhist point of view what we say will be of help are the positive habits that we have built up on our mental continuum.

We have done many positive things: helped others, etc. If we have made a great deal of progress on the spiritual path of lessening our anger, our selfishness and so on, this is going to make a deep impression on our mental continuum. And from a Dharma lite point of view, we can die without regrets and feel that we have led a worthwhile, positive life, especially if we have taken care of our loved ones or, on a greater scale, made some contribution to society. Peace of mind: “I led a good life, a worthwhile life.”

Or if we think of the real thing Dharma, then we can die with some confidence that these positive habits, tendencies and instincts on my mental continuum will continue into future lives. “In future lives, I will continue to have a precious human rebirth. I will be born as a child with very positive instincts.” You see this with children; some children when they are very tiny, they are always crying and angry and so on. Others are very calm, always very kind to others and so on. This is a result of positive habits that they have built up in previous lives. We have a peaceful state of mind as we die, this is of help. The amount of money that we have in the bank is not going to give us any comfort. It’s, after all, just a number on a piece of paper or on the computer screen.

So we have death meditation, in which we can imagine that “Today is my last day and am I ready to die at any time? Would I have regrets about how I have led my life?” The whole point of this is not to get depressed. That is not the point. The whole point is to take advantage of the precious human life and the opportunities that we have now. That is the whole point of this meditation. Every day – it’s not just that every day I am getting older, but every day I am getting closer to my death: one day less I have to live. Time is running out and we don’t know how much time we have left. Therefore I want to make the best use of my life now and not just waste it. To die with a state of mind that we realize that I have really wasted my life and I could have done so much more is a terrible state of mind to die in.

This state of mind of “I am not going to waste my opportunities” has to be established in a very balanced type of way. It doesn’t mean that we become a fanatic living under a state of fear, so I can’t stop. We need to know when to take a break and when to relax so that we have more strength to go on. My favorite Zen koan: “Death can come at any time, relax.” If you think about it, then that makes a lot of sense. Yes, we can die at any time; but if we are uptight and a fanatic, then it is self-defeating.

Take advantage of the precious human life, but do it in a balanced type of way – that is the message. Although we need to sometimes take a break and relax, that doesn’t mean that we treat ourselves like a baby. There is a difference between really honestly being tired and needing some relaxation, and just laziness. We need to be able to be honest with ourselves and really be aware of our motivation. Obviously death awareness like this in meditation could be applied in either the Dharma lite fashion or real thing Dharma fashion. So if we have things that are still left undone, you want to tell someone, “I really love you and appreciate what you have done,” then don’t wait. That person might not be around tomorrow and we might not be around tomorrow. So this is the lesson that we learn from this death awareness. It is very beneficial, very helpful on any level. Don’t deny death, but be prepared. And we can visualize our own deaths, our own funerals, etc. This can make things a little bit more real to us, without dwelling on it and becoming morbid and depressed.

So we go to the real thing Dharma, which is what can happen after we die. Here we have a presentation that we could have one of the worst rebirths there is and we need to take that seriously. This is not very easy, because the presentation in Buddhism is giving us not just animal types of rebirths that are worse than our present human one, but forms that we can’t actually see.

Obviously, if we just consider animal rebirth, animal includes insects and fish, the whole thing, that’s fine. Obviously, we don’t want to think how horrible it would be, to be some small insect or some small fish that is just eaten alive by a larger insect or larger fish, etc. There are many examples of how terrible it would be to be reborn in the animal kingdom, the type of fears and the type of sufferings that animals endure. When we think of the type of life of an animal, the image that we need to have is not one of a poodle with nail polish on, living in the house of a wealthy person. The better image is a cockroach or a rat, that’s what we are talking about here. So we could certainly develop the wish that “I really don’t want that.”

The emotion that is generated here is usually translated as “fear,” but I don’t know if it’s a very good translation, because fear implies hopelessness that we can’t do anything about it. That is not the case, because we can do something to avoid this. I prefer the word “dread,” which is a word that means strongly that I don’t want that to happen.

If we have a really boring business meeting, I dread going to it, it is going to be so boring and terrible, but it is not that I’m afraid to go to it. So, this is the emotion that is generated. I have this precious life; it can be lost at any time; I want to take advantage of it and I want to ensure that my next life, I am not a cockroach. That would be awful and I really wouldn’t like that to happen, so I have to do something about it to avoid that.

Now, in the real thing Dharma, then we speak not just of animal, insect rebirths, we speak in terms of being reborn as a ghost and as some sort of being trapped in a hell realm and so on. I don’t think that it is fair to Buddhism to just be embarrassed that that is there and just want to hide it in the closet, but rather to try to be open-minded about that and say, “I don’t really understand it.”

The way that I relate to this is in terms of what we were speaking of the other day, of mental activity. We have the arising of the mental hologram; and that is what it means to see something, to know something, to think something etc. And accompanying each moment of experiencing things, of mental activity, there is some sort of level of happiness or unhappiness, somewhere on that spectrum. This is what differentiates us from a computer or a machine. There is information with a computer, there’s dealing with it, knowing it in a sense, but the computer doesn’t feel happy or unhappy. So, a computer doesn’t really experience the information. The fact that we have happy or unhappy feelings, that is what defines or describes actually experiencing something. This is true regardless of whatever level of happy or unhappy we feel. It could be low level, but it is somewhere on that spectrum. This spectrum is very, very vast and the amount of that spectrum that we can experience is dependent on our hardware, the type of body that we have.

We can understand this in terms of not just happy and unhappy, but the various senses. Some people can see further than others, some people can hear better than others, some people are more tolerant to heat and cold, other people are less tolerant. If we bring in animals, then a dog can hear much higher frequencies than a human can because it has different hardware, a different type of body. And an eagle can see much further with eagle eyes than we can with human eyes. If that is true with the various senses, why could that not also be true with the spectrum of happy and unhappy?

We can bring in here pleasure and pain, although they are not exactly the same because we can have mental happiness or mental unhappiness and pleasure and pain… at least in English, it’s mostly physical. In any case, if we look at the human hardware, when suffering becomes too strong, if it is physical pain you become unconscious, if it is emotional pain you experience shock and your body just shuts down. On the other side, with pleasure it is very interesting. If you analyze an itch, an itch is actually intense pleasure; it is not painful. But, it is too pleasurable and therefore we instinctively have to destroy it by scratching. Actually that’s a way to deal with chronic itchiness, if someone has a chronic skin disorder that itches like mad. Although it is extremely difficult and advanced to do, if you can regard the itch as pleasure, just relax and enjoy it, especially if it is going to damage you if you scratch it, that’s about the only way to deal with it. That of course is extremely difficult to do but it is possible. In any case, if we think in terms of sexual pleasure, the more intense it gets, the more quickly we destroy it: we want to reach orgasm, climax.

So, this human hardware can only experience a certain part of the spectrum of happy and unhappy, pain and pleasure. If that is the case and animals can experience more on the spectrum in terms of senses, then why is it not logically possible that there could be other types of hardware that could experience further on the spectrum of more pain and suffering and unhappiness, or more pleasure and happiness. Why not?

In other words, mental activity is what we are talking about, that has continuity from lifetime to lifetime, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be able to experience the entire spectrum from severe suffering and pain to super intense pleasure and happiness. Why not? It is just a matter of what hardware we have in each lifetime. This is a logical way to try to at least be open-minded enough to consider these other life forms that are described in Buddhism that we cannot see. We can’t see amoebas but nevertheless with scientific developments of microscopes we can see them. OK this is a life form. So similarly, you might not be able to see ghosts, but with development of the mind it is possible.

The Dharma lite version reduces these other realms to types of human experience. Somebody could be so mentally disturbed that we could say it’s like they are living in hell. That can help us to generate sympathy and wish not to be like that in the future and that is fine. It functions on the Dharma lite level. However, real thing Dharma is not talking about human experience; it’s talking about experience that we can have, everybody can have, on the basis of a mental continuum. We are talking about a mental continuum, mental activity that can be accompanied by anything on that spectrum of happy, unhappy, pleasure to pain.

I certainly don’t want to have in future lives some sort of basis that is going to be very, very limited and can only support horrible painful experiences. That is clear. I don’t want that. Is there a way out of that, to avoid that? First, we have to put a certain positive direction in our life, which will enable us to avoid these worse rebirths and not just to avoid worse rebirth, but to go further on the path to liberation and enlightenment. We are thinking in terms of this larger scale.

So we come to the term “refuge.” “Refuge” – I don’t particularly care for that translation; it is a little misleading as it is too passive. We are not talking about going to Buddha as a savior, “Oh Buddha, Buddha, save me!” and we are given refuge like an animal going to a wildlife refuge. We are talking about something very active, not passive, which I translate and describe as putting a “safe direction” into our life. By going in that direction, we protect ourselves from experiencing worse rebirths, uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether, and the inability to help others as effectively as possible. Going in this direction we can avoid these three levels of things that we want to get rid of, want to prevent.

“Dharma,” the word that is usually translated as the teachings of the Buddha, actually means a preventive measure, something that we do, that we incorporate in ourselves in order to prevent, or avoid, future problems, suffering. We put these measures in our lives, in other words we do something that is taught in the teachings, and in doing that, we do this in order to prevent or avoid any of these three types of problems; worse rebirths, rebirths altogether and the inability to help others fully.

What is this direction, the direction that is indicated by the Buddha? It’s what the Buddha has achieved. The Buddha has achieved a complete stopping of all the hindrances, all the shortcoming, all the disturbing emotions, all the confusions, etc. Buddha has realized all the positive potentials that the mind has. So, this is the direction. That is actually what we are talking about, safe direction of the Three Jewels, the Precious and Rare Jewels. This is the Dharma, what the Buddha has actually accomplished and his teachings of how to achieve it. This is indicated by a Buddha who has attained it in full and the Sangha is referring to the community of, not just people in the monastery, not just people in a Buddhist center, certainly not that, but it is referring to those highly realized beings who have achieved part of what a Buddha has achieved. Sangha – the monastic community represents this, but that is not really our safe direction.

So that is the first thing that we have to do, is sincerely put a safe direction in our life. This is what I am working towards, to achieve what a Buddha has achieved, the way the Buddha has done it in full and the way that the Sangha has done in part.

Doing this, putting this direction in our life makes a huge difference on every level, because now our life has meaning, has a direction. In simple language, I am working on myself to try to get rid of my shortcomings and realize my potentials. Emotionally it makes a huge difference, rather than, “I don’t know what life is all about; I don’t know what I am doing here; my life is meaningless.” That is a terrible state of mind. If the purpose of life is to just make as much money as possible, although it is a cliché, but “money cannot buy us happiness.” It’s true.

So, we put this safe direction in our life; and then, on this level, what is the way to avoid worse rebirths? To avoid acting in destructive ways, either acting in a destructive way, speaking in a destructive way or thinking in a destructive way. This means to avoid any of these three under the influence of a disturbing emotion; anger, greed, attachment, naivety, jealousy, arrogance – a whole long list. This is how we can best take advantage of a precious human life now on this initial level: to avoid acting, speaking and thinking in a destructive way. But this needs to be done within the Buddhist framework, because every religion says don’t act destructively don’t kill, etc.

What is distinctively Buddhist is that the basis for this is not some law – a law either created by some divine being or a law created by a legislature or government. Buddhist ethics is not based on obedience to the law. “Obey the law, because if you disobey you are going to be punished.” If it’s a civil law, well if you get a good lawyer sometimes you can get out of it, or a bribe. So, that is not the basis of ethics, obedience, not the basis of ethics here, it’s quite different. “Well if I obey the law I am a good person and if I don’t obey it I am bad, I’m a criminal.”

The whole basis here of ethics is that understanding that if I act in these destructive ways it is going to create something, something for me, unhappy states of mind, disturbed. If I act like this, it is basically because of confusion. Either I don’t know that acting destructively is just going to be self-destructive, like when we become addicted to a drug or alcohol we might not even think that this is self-destructive. Or we think in an inverted way that if I get drunk or high all the time, that is the way to avoid my problems.

So the whole basis of ethics here is understanding. If we act destructively it is not because we are bad, it is because we are confused. If others will act destructively, it is not that they are bad people and have to be punished; but that they are very confused and very disturbed. They are objects of compassion and we need to try to help to get rid of their confusion. We might have to lock them up because they could be damaging to a lot of people otherwise; but it is with a different mentality. We don’t have to punish or hurt them, but in a sense try to help. This is a mental continuum that will go on forever and if we don’t somehow try and rehabilitate it now, in future lives it is just going to continue acting in very destructive ways.

But here on this initial level we are focused just on, basically, ourselves and wanting to avoid terrible situations in the future – either in this lifetime: that is Dharma lite, or in future lifetimes: that is the real thing. On this level, this is the way that we go in the safe direction, how we use this precious human life that we have now because we are going to lose it. What we really want to do on this level is to ensure that we continue to have a precious human life in the future, because it is going to take a long time to reach the goals of liberation and enlightenment. Just as Dharma lite is a stepping stone to the real thing Dharma, then the initial level that we have been talking about is a stepping stone to the intermediate and advanced levels.