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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Lam-rim Structured According to the Four Noble Truths

Lam-rim Structured According to the Four Noble Truths

Alexander Berzin
Warsaw, Poland, July 31, 1986

The Four True Facts

After Buddha Shakyamuni demonstrated his attainment of enlightenment, he taught various methods for us to achieve such a state ourselves. The basic method is to take preventive measures, in other words, to practice the Dharma. First, there are (1) true problems, which everyone faces. These have (2) true causes. Nevertheless, we can achieve (3) a true stopping of these problems by stopping their causes, and to bring about these true stoppings, we need to develop (4) true pathways of mind.

Initial Level

These four true facts (four noble truths) can be understood on several different levels. On an initial one, there are the true problems of being reborn in worse states of rebirth. If we are in an extreme state of suffering, experiencing a tremendous amount of sickness, hunger, thirst, or are always being tortured with pain, we will have no time or possibility for spiritual development. This is because our minds will be overwhelmed with severe problems and difficulties.

The true cause of this is acting destructively. As Buddha taught, if we create pain or suffering, we ourselves must experience that suffering. On the other hand, if we act in a constructive manner, if we create happiness, we will eventually experience this happiness ourselves. Therefore, if we want to achieve the true stopping of those severe problems, we must follow a true path of restraining ourselves from negative or destructive actions.

First, we must realize that we have a precious human life. At present, we have all the opportunities to be able to grow and develop ourselves spiritually. We are not in concentration camps or suffering from a severe famine, for instance. These opportunities however, are not going to last forever because for certain we shall all die and this precious human life will be lost. There is no certainty when this will happen. At any moment, we could be hit by a truck. If we were to die now, then if we had always been acting destructively, this would lead to worse states in the future. We would be reborn in situations in which we ourselves would have to experience the pain and sufferings we had created. Therefore, dreading this future, we look to see if there is any direction out of this. We look at the Buddhas themselves.

Buddhas are those who have cleared themselves out of all limitations so that their faculties of mind, speech, and body are unlimited and clear. Their minds are not limited by disturbing emotions or attitudes such as anger, attachment, or fanaticism. They are not limited by having mental dullness or mental wandering. Their hearts, which are also considered an aspect of mind, are not limited by selfishness or favoritism. Their speech is not limited in its ability to communicate and their bodies are not limited in energy, for instance. In this way, everything is clear about their minds, their hearts, speech, and bodies. Further, they have realized all their potentials so they have evolved to the highest state possible.

Not only have the Buddhas done this, they have also indicated how they did it. This was by taking preventive measures, or Dharma, to avoid being overwhelmed by their limitations, which would create problems for themselves and others. There is also the community of those who are intent on such goals and well advanced towards them, the Sangha. Seeing, then, the good qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and not wanting to continue having to experience a life that is going in the direction of creating more problems for ourselves, and furthermore seeing that if we go in the direction of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, this will enable us to avoid such problems, we take our safe direction in life from them. This is what is meant by taking refuge – to put a safe direction in our lives.

The actual safe direction is indicated by following the laws of cause and effect. Therefore, if we wish to avoid problems in the future, we follow a true path of restraining ourselves from acting negatively, such as restraining ourselves from killing, stealing, lying and so forth. Thus, we act in a constructive manner. This is an initial level of understanding of the four true facts.

Intermediate Level

On an intermediate level, no matter what type of situation we may be reborn in, we experience true problems of being born, becoming sick, growing old, and dying. There are the true problems of not obtaining what we want even when we try to get it, and the problems of having things happen to us that we do not want to happen. We have many uncontrollably recurring problems such as frustrations at always having difficult relationships with others, and so on. The true cause for these is first of all our lack of awareness of reality – of who we are and how we exist. Because of that, we grasp for concrete ego-identities, but about which we feel insecure. Consequently, in order to defend or assert such identities, our minds become filled with disturbing emotions and attitudes, such as attachment, anger, naivety, pride, jealousy, indecisive wavering, and so forth. Based on these, various impulses or karmas come to our mind, which we act out in the form of impulsive behavior. This we do in an attempt to make our identities more secure, for instance, by trying to accumulate as much wealth, material objects or friends as possible, or by trying to chase away or destroy everything and anyone we do not like. When we act impulsively in these manners, such as by yelling or acting cruelly to each other, this causes us true problems.

If we wish to have true stoppings of these problems, we need to follow a true path. First, we need to develop the proper motivation, which is the strong determination to be free from our problems, what is sometimes called renunciation. With this as our motivation, we need to develop discriminating awareness with which we can see reality or voidness. In order to gain such wisdom, we need concentration, and in order to have such control over our minds, we need to be able to control the grosser actions of our bodies and speech. Therefore, we need to have ethical self-discipline. By following this path of the three higher trainings – in higher ethical self-discipline, concentration, and wisdom – we can gain the discriminating awareness with which to see voidness: the total absence of all impossible ways of existing.

Because we are unaware of reality and are confused about who we are and how we and the world exist, we grasp at them to exist in impossible ways, such as at everything being concrete and independent. Nothing, however, exists in such a fantasized impossible way. Everything is devoid of existing in such an impossible manner. This does not mean, however, that nothing exists. Rather, whatever does exist, exists in the manner of dependently arising, with everything arising dependently on causes and circumstances, on parts, or in relationship with a mind and the process of mental labeling. Through such a true path of understanding and realization, we can overcome the mental obscurations or mental blocks that are disturbing emotions and gain liberation. This is an intermediate level of understanding of the four true facts.

Advanced Level

On an advanced level, we see that not only do we experience problems ourselves but everyone experiences the same problems as well. Therefore, on this level, true problems are the problems that everyone faces. Furthermore, another true problem is our inability to help everyone overcome his or her problems. The true causes of these problems is, firstly, the selfishness with which we are concerned about only ourselves and ignore others. Then, there are also the mental obscurations or mental blocks that prevent us from knowing all the skillful means for benefiting others, in other words, the obscurations preventing our omniscience. A true stopping of this would be not only to be liberated from our own problems, but to go beyond to achieve the state of a Buddha, in which we overcome all our limitations and realize all our potentials so that we are able to benefit everyone as much as is possible.

The true path that leads to this is, firstly, developing the motivation of bodhichitta, which is expanding or opening our hearts out to all others and to enlightenment, the state of a Buddha to be able to benefit them all. With this as our motivation, we develop and practice the far-reaching attitudes or perfections, all of which are based on caring love and compassionate sympathy. These are the attitudes of generosity, self-discipline, patient tolerance, joyful perseverance, stability of mind (concentration), and discriminating awareness (wisdom). With far-reaching discrimination, we see the same reality or voidness that we needed to see in order to overcome our disturbing emotions and gain liberation. However, because the force of bodhichitta as our motivation is much stronger than that of a determination to be free, there is more energy to that understanding.

If we have only a determination to be free of our problems, this provides a limited amount of energy behind our understanding of reality. If, however, our motivation to see reality is, in addition, to be able to benefit everyone, this adds much greater energy. Thus, our understanding is able to cut through both levels of obscuration, not only the obscurations that are disturbing emotions, but also those preventing omniscience.

As an example, suppose there is a medical lecture about how to cure poisonous snakebites. If a student attends who is studying this only in order to become a doctor, so that he can make a lot of money and overcome his financial problems, he will listen to this lecture with only a certain amount of energy. If, however, a mother whose child has just been bitten by a snake runs into the classroom, then because she has such intense concern for her child to be cured, she will want to learn how to cure snakebites with much greater intensity. Likewise, when we have a bodhichitta motivation behind our understanding of reality, this adds a much stronger amount of force to it, so that our understanding is able to cut through all our mental obscurations.

This type of method entails a path or pathway of mind that combines method and wisdom. The way in which they combine here, however, on the sutra level, is not one in which the two occur simultaneously. Rather, it is a method in which each occurs within the context of the other. Thus, the method of expanding our hearts out to all others and to achieving enlightenment to benefit them is within the context of our having wisdom, or the understanding of reality, and vice-versa. In other words, when our hearts are expanding out to all others, this is within the context or our minds expanding out to reality. When our minds are expanding out to reality, it is within the context of our hearts expanding out to all others. In this way, one is within the context of the other, and until we are Buddhas, the two cannot occur simultaneously in one mind.

With this manner of combining method and wisdom, it takes a very long time to be able to cut through all our mental obscurations. In fact, it takes what is known as three countless eons, countless being the largest finite number, which is 10 followed by 60 zeros. Let us call it a zillion. This is a tremendous length of time and others cannot wait for us to take so long to overcome our limitations and realize all our potentials in order to be able to benefit them the best. This is precisely where tantra comes in. Tantra is a Mahayana or vast-minded practice entered upon in order to be able to reach the state of a Buddha – the most quickly and efficiently – to benefit others as much as is possible and as soon as is possible. It is based on all the methods that we have just discussed in terms of the four true facts.