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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Overview of the Lam-rim Graded Pathways of Mind

Overview of the Lam-rim Graded Pathways of Mind

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I
London, England, October 1982
Translated and edited by Alexander Berzin
Further edited by Pauline Yeats

The Best Use of a Precious Human Rebirth

We have all attained a precious human rebirth, with a precious human body, which allows for the greatest possible spiritual progress. We wouldn’t have a better opportunity for achieving enlightenment than we now have as human beings – not even if we were to be reborn as Indra, the king of the gods!

Since there is no better working basis than what we now have, it is important that we know all the procedures for making the best use of it. The most excellent way to make spiritual progress is to develop within ourselves, more and more, a kind and warm heart. On the basis of a warm heart, we would then go on to develop the dedicated heart of a bodhichitta aim. This is the wish to achieve enlightenment, in other words the wish to eliminate all our shortcomings and to achieve our fullest potential, in order to be able to benefit everyone as best as is possible. When we dedicate our heart to others, and to achieving enlightenment, that’s the best use we can make of our precious human rebirth.

Positive Potential from Past Life Behavior as the Cause for Success in This Lifetime

There are many different types of human beings, and among all of them, it is very rare to come across those who have any interest in benefiting their future lives, let alone in attaining enlightenment. Most people are only concerned about finding happiness for themselves in this lifetime alone. Nonetheless, everyone is the same, in that we all wish to be happy and nobody wants to suffer or have problems.

For those that focus on becoming happy for this lifetime, there are two types of happiness: physical happiness and mental happiness. Most people limit their attention solely to some kind of physical happiness. But even regarding physical happiness, even though we all work to try to bring some level of it to our lives, most of us don’t really know how to do that. For instance, there are those who, in the pursuit of food, clothing, shelter and status, go out and murder, or assassinate, or slaughter innocent creatures. Others engage in theft, or deception, or burglary, all in the pursuit of happiness and the attempt to find some sort of physical well-being. But, try as they may, they don’t really know a proper way to bring that well-being about. Instead of happiness, they just create more problems for themselves.

On the other hand, people who try their best in making an honest living, in business, commerce, agriculture, education, the arts, and so on, can be divided into two groups. There are those who succeed, who are able to gain wealth and many possessions, and those who do not succeed, or who even become total failures. If we ask what can account for this – why do some succeed while others fail – it is because of the seeds and potentials they have built up in past lifetimes. Those who have been destructive in past lives have built up great negative potential and, as a result, they fail in this life. Those that have acted constructively in past lives built up a positive potential, and this accounts for their success and happiness in this lifetime.

If you don’t accept this explanation for why some people succeed and others fail, consider that there is really no reason why such a discrepancy should exist. If people are working with the same amount of effort and ability, they should have the same amount of success. Some people think that success comes as a result of the type of work they do for a livelihood in this lifetime – such as business or commerce – but that doesn’t entirely account for it. The actual causes for success are the potentials that have been built up from constructive actions in previous lifetimes, while the work and activity that we engage in during this lifetime act as the circumstances or conditions for allowing those causes to ripen.

Accordingly, success depends on causes and conditions, arising together. Causes come from past lives – potentials built up during those lifetimes. The circumstances occur based on the time and effort put in during this lifetime. The two must come together.

Concern for Future Lives

No matter how well-off people might become in this lifetime, no matter how many splendors they might enjoy; nevertheless, nobody seems to feel satisfied with what they have accumulated. Nobody says, “Now I have enough; now I don’t have to get any more.” Never are they content with what they have. They always want more. They use up their entire lives with work. Yet their work never comes to an end.

It becomes an ever-repeating cycle, like that of the farmer, laboring through all the seasons of the year, planting, attending his fields, and harvesting. In spring, he plants again, going through the cycle once more. That’s an example of how we just continue to work.

Although we never think that the work of this lifetime comes to an end, nevertheless there is in fact a time when it will end – at the time of our death. At that point, it ends in a state of grief and sorrow, rather than a state of happiness.

So those who are working merely for acquiring food, clothing, and recognition for this lifetime are truly cheating themselves. This is because, although they might be able to find physical comfort, they are not able to achieve mental happiness. Without mental happiness, their life remains unfulfilled and they die in an unhappy state.

So, it is important to try to work for some longer lasting, mentally based happiness. The physical happiness we may achieve in this lifetime is something that is not long-lasting. If we want truly lasting happiness, we must consider our future lives. This is because, when we take that into account, we can work for truly long-lasting happiness.

If we work toward achieving happiness in future lifetimes, that fulfills the definition of what it means to be a spiritual person, involved in a spiritual practice of Dharma. If we are limited to the concerns of this lifetime – things that are perishable – then we are merely a worldly, material person. If we begin to address the concerns of future lives, we become a spiritual person.

Restraining from Destructive Behavior as the Way to Bring Happiness in Future Lives

The way to ensure happiness in future lifetimes involves taking certain “preventive measures” of Dharma. Specifically, that means restraining ourselves from committing destructive actions. There are ten specific destructive actions, which include three of body, four of speech, and three of mind. By restraining and safeguarding ourselves from acting destructively in any of these ways, we bring about happiness in future lifetimes.

We have now established that if we act in a constructive manner, we have the beginning of a spiritual practice that will bring about things going well in this and future lives. This type of constructive behavior involves, for example, looking at the deliberate killing of an animal or insect, or the deliberate act of stealing, and seeing all the drawbacks and negative results that would follow from that. It involves recognizing that, and then making a firm decision not to kill or steal. When people make such a decision, it is not necessary to have an army or police force around to ensure that they act properly and constructively. Their own sense of morality and ethics restrain them from destructive acts.

Keeping strict ethics, then, is the preventive measure to take that allows us to die in a happy state of mind. Otherwise, we may well die in a state of great sorrow and anxiety. If we have taken these preventive measures of being an ethical person, however, then at the time of death we will have nothing to worry about. We can be assured that we will be reborn as a human, or even as a god in one of the god realms – as an Indra or something.

Uncontrollably Recurring Problems in All Lives

Even if we are reborn as a human – or even as a king of the gods – we are going to have problems in life. There are uncontrollably recurring problems that occur, no matter where or as what we are reborn. There is no point therefore, in following an ethic of refraining from destructive actions if, by doing so, we merely wish to prevent ourselves from being reborn in a worse state of rebirth. Because, no matter where or as what we are reborn, there are going to be problems.

This indicates that a wider scope is needed. For instance, if we develop a stilled and settled state of mind – called “shamatha” in Sanskrit and “shinay” in Tibetan – as a result of that we could be reborn as a god in one of the higher planes of existence: the plane of ethereal forms or the plane of formless beings. We would then be able to gain all the splendors of that type of rebirth state. But even being reborn as a being within one of these higher planes of existence, there is nothing special about that. It is just like going up to the top floor of a skyscraper – once we get up there, there is nothing left to do but come back down.

Gaining Confidence in Buddha’s Words

Therefore, it is necessary to try to eliminate our problems wherever we might be reborn, and to go even further. In order to do that, we need to get to the root of our problems and suffering by cutting through with discriminating awareness so that we discriminate clearly between reality and fantasy. In this way, we come eventually to realize voidness, which means the total absence of impossible ways of existing. This clear understanding of reality eliminates our false projections and, in so doing, eliminates forever all the problems and sufferings that we can experience in any lifetime. It brings a happiness that endures forever, and it’s something that we can achieve.

We can learn about the teachings on voidness from the classical texts that preserve Buddha’s words. But how do we gain confidence in the validity of these scriptures, not only concerning voidness, but concerning everything that Buddha spoke of in them? Confidence in their validity must be achieved on the basis of logic and analysis. Take, for example, voidness. We can establish the validity of voidness by relying on logical reasoning. In addition, we can validate the teachings on how to achieve absorbed concentration and a stilled and settled state of mind through putting the instructions for attaining them into practice and actually gaining these states ourselves. In addition, we can experience for ourselves that, through these practices, we actually do achieve the various types of heightened, extrasensory perception that are described as the byproducts of attaining such concentration. We can actually validate, by our own experience, these various points that were taught by Buddha.

Like this, based on of our own hard work and effort to actualize what Buddha taught regarding topics that we can validate through logic and personal experience, we develop confident belief in the validity of Buddha’s words in general. With the security gained from that confident belief, we develop deep trust in the validity of other more obscure things that Buddha spoke of.

For instance, Buddha said that if we act in a constructive manner, then as a result we will be reborn in one of the better states of rebirth – as a human or a god. On the other hand, if we act destructively and negatively, what follows is a rebirth as a hell creature, a so-called “hungry” ghost, or an animal. These are statements about behavioral cause and effect, which are difficult to substantiate or validate through our own experience or through pure logic. But we don’t have to accept them on the basis of blind faith in scriptural authority. This is because if logic and experience demonstrate the validity of what Buddha taught concerning gaining absorbed concentration and a correct understanding of voidness, it becomes totally reasonable to accept what the Buddha has said as well about behavior and its results.

Consequently, we need to think very carefully about statements the Buddha has made about voidness, about reality, about the total absence of impossible ways of existing. On recognizing that these are correct, we need then to consider further statements of the Buddha: that the result of acting constructively is happiness; that the result of acting destructively and negatively is suffering. Then we gain a confident belief that these statements are also correct and, based on that, make a firm decision to modify our behavior accordingly. If we want happiness, we need to act in a manner that will bring it about. Namely, we need to act constructively and positively.

Renunciation – the Determination to Be Free of All Problems

We would do well also to consider that the working basis of an excellent human rebirth that we now have – with all its attendant opportunities for spiritual progress – didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It is the result of having built up enormous positive potential in previous lifetimes. We must have acted very constructively and positively, and that has brought about the rebirth and the opportunities that we now have. So we must not let this opportunity go to waste. If we are totally involved in things of only this lifetime, such as acquiring food and clothing, fame and reputation, then this lifetime is a waste. If these are our sole concerns, then because of this fixation, we won’t be able to turn away from a total obsession with this lifetime alone.

On the other hand, if we put all our effort into gaining happiness in future lifetimes with rebirth as a god, such as Indra, this also has problems. Look at the type of life that such a god has. This god has tremendous happiness and no temporary superficial problems. But at the time of death, such a god has enormous regret and remorse, because an entire life of pleasure will have seemed to be merely a dream, and will bring immense suffering and unhappiness in the face of his death. So, to have such a rebirth as our goal is not the solution to all our problems.

Moreover, we have to make the fullest use of this working basis we have of a precious human body, because it is something that is going to be lost. There is nobody who, after being born, has escaped death. Death is something that will come to all of us, for sure, and it is just a matter of time. No one can say for certain when his or her time will come. Thinking about these realities sobers us into wishing to take the fullest advantage of the opportunities that we have now while we are alive and well.

So, we need to turn away from our total obsession with gaining things for this lifetime alone. We do this by reflecting on how the various perishable things of this lifetime have no lasting essence at all. In this way, we turn away from our obsession with things for this lifetime and develop a determination to be free of problems based on that type of obsession. This type of determination to be free is called “renunciation.”

Likewise, we need to look at future lifetimes and all the various types of situations in which we might be reborn. When we think about the splendors and happiness we could gain in future rebirths as a human or as a god, we need to recall that these also entail problems. No matter how well off we might be, problems uncontrollably recur. Hence, to be attached and obsessed with these things for future lifetimes, too, is something we need to turn away from. We do this by trying to develop a second type of determination. Namely, it is the determination to be free of the problems that come with these obsessions in future lifetimes.

So there are two types of determination to be free. There is the determination to be free of problems in this life, and the determination to be free of problems in all future lives.

Impermanence

A spiritual practitioner is one who is mindful of the fact that no situation in life ever remains static; one who is mindful of impermanence and death; one who is also mindful and aware of his or her problems and all the problems that there are in life. This is something that motivates such a practitioner to take various preventive measures to avoid all these problems. If, by just forgetting about impermanence and problems and forgetting about death, we could make them go away, that would be very nice – that would be great. But the fact is, we can’t do that. Just ignoring the fact that we are going to die and the fact that our life has problems doesn’t make those facts disappear. It is therefore much better to be aware of our problems, to face them realistically, and then to take various measures to eliminate them. This is what is involved in spiritual practice.

The Buddha himself, when he first set flow various rounds of transmission of these measures, did so by way of teaching about impermanence, about how nothing remains static. His whole spiritual quest began with his realization of impermanence. And, likewise, when his life ended and he passed away, that also was done within the context of demonstrating to everyone the fact of impermanence.

The Four Noble Truths

Furthermore, problems don’t come from nowhere. They don’t happen to us for no reason at all. Rather, all our true problems and unhappiness arise from true causes – namely, our impulsive behavior and our disturbing emotions and attitudes – in other words, our karma and our delusions. It is acting impulsively with disturbing emotions and attitudes that brings about all problems.

Now, of these two causes of all our problems, we can see that impulsive behavior has its roots in disturbing emotions and attitudes. And, if we examine the 84,000 different types of disturbing emotions and attitudes that have been described in the Buddhist texts, we discover that they all come from one single source: namely, the ignorance or unawareness that leads us to grasp for truly established existence and for truly established identities.

There is no such thing, however, as a truly established identity – neither for ourselves nor for anything – yet, we grasp at things as if they had a truly established identity or existence. Therefore, if we are able to realize and discriminate that such a thing as a truly established identity is impossible, this acts as an antidote to eliminate grasping for things to have such an identity.

When we gain an understanding that there is no such thing as truly established existence – that nothing has a truly established identity – this understanding is known as a “true pathway of mind,” “a true path” – one of the Four Noble Truths. It is a pathway of mind that highly realized beings, the “aryas,” see as being true or correct and as leading to the attainment of liberation and enlightenment.

When we have a true pathway of mind – namely a discriminating awareness that there is no such thing as a truly established identity of anything – then we will no longer have any disturbing emotions or attitudes, since such delusions are based on projecting and believing in impossible ways of existing. When we no longer have any disturbing emotions or attitudes, we won’t act impulsively. And when we no longer act impulsively, we will no longer create problems for ourselves. The state in which problems will no longer ever arise in our experience is known as a “ true stopping,” “a true cessation.”

This is the presentation of the four facts that are seen as true by aryas, highly realized beings. These are the Four Noble Truths. The first two truths deal with what is disturbing, namely true problems and their true causes: impulsive behavior and disturbing emotions and attitudes. When we turn our attention to the last two truths, which deal with what is liberating, then we wish to achieve a true stopping of all problems through eliminating their causes forever. And the way to do that is to develop true pathways of mind. This is how we come to recognize and understand these four facts seen as true by highly realized beings.

Building on the excellent working basis that we have in our precious human rebirth, we now need to put all our efforts into realizing these Four Noble Truths. When we have done so, we will have made proper use of the opportunities that we have with this rebirth. When we build up, as a beneficial habit of mind, a constant, stable awareness that there is no such thing as truly established existence, we will have completely eliminated all our problems forever.

Developing Compassion

Now, to get rid of all problems for ourselves alone is very nice – but it is not enough. That is because we are just one person, while others are innumerable. We can never count how many other beings there are, and every one of them has problems – they all suffer, in one way or another. Therefore it is unfair just to work for ourselves alone: we have to seek a solution for everyone.

On reflection, it becomes clear that all the other beings with limited minds have been extremely kind to us – in fact, there is nothing more kind than other beings. When we consider the kindness of the Buddhas, and the kindness of limited beings, we realize that they are equal. For instance, if we like honey, we need to think of where that honey comes from. It comes from a lot of bees, and these bees have to do a lot of work to make it: fly around to so many flowers, collect pollen, and secrete and deposit honey in a comb. If we ever have any hopes to be able enjoy honey, we have to rely on the work and kindness of these small insects. Likewise, when we consider the meat that some of us might eat, for instance when we need some food that will give our bodies more strength when we are sick and weak, where does it come from? It comes from animals that must give up their lives in order to provide that meat for our strength and nourishment.

Therefore, once we have developed a strong determination to be free from all our problems, we need to transfer that attitude to others. Just as we have the determination to be free of our own problems, likewise we need now to have a wish for everybody else to be free from their problems too. Such an attitude is known as “compassion.”

If we didn’t think seriously about our own problems, and about how we don’t want to have them – and if we didn’t develop the determination to be free of them – it would be very difficult to take others’ problems seriously. We would not be able to develop a sincere compassion to wish others freedom from their troubles. For example, if there is an official who has suffered a great deal during his or her career and then reaches a high position, that person will have sympathy and compassion for the problems of others. Such a person would be much better situated to help others than someone who became an official having lived their whole life in ease, never having known what it means to suffer.

Bodhicitta

The attitude whereby we wish for others to be free from suffering is known as “compassion.” The attitude whereby we wish for everybody to be happy is the definition of “love.” If we consider the wish of everyone to be happy and free of problems, and if we decide that, since everyone has been so kind to us, we must actually do something about it and not just on a superficial level, but help free them from all their problems – this taking of responsibility is known as an “exceptional resolve.”

If we are merely caught up with our own selfish concerns, there is no way for us to gain any realizations or develop the good qualities of a Buddha. Whereas, if we turn away from selfishness and become concerned with the plight of others, then this is the basis for we ourselves to become an enlightened Buddha. It is out of selfish concern that we would engage in such things as murder, stealing, and so forth in order to accumulate resources for ourselves. Such unskillful methods bring only more problems, and the root of it all is our selfishness.

The Buddha Shakymuni was able to achieve his state of enlightenment, to become totally clear minded and fully evolved, as a result of being concerned solely with the welfare of others. In fact, all the Buddhas of all times have achieved this state of realizing their fullest potential on the basis of their concern for others. So, if we are realistic, we see that even though we might have this exceptional resolve “to bring about happiness for everyone and free them from all their problems,” we don’t have the ability to do so, no matter how much we might wish to. Only a Buddha has such ability to help everybody overcome their problems and gain happiness.

Therefore, it is necessary to dedicate our hearts fully to benefiting others, and to achieving the enlightened state of a Buddha in order to do so as best as is possible. That is known as a “ bodhichitta aim.”

With such a dedicated heart having a bodhichitta aim, suppose we make a simple offering, like that of a flower. If the intention of such an offering is to benefit everyone, and to achieve enlightenment so that we can do so as best as is possible, then the positive potential built up from that simple act is enormous. In fact, when our aim is to be able to benefit everyone, the benefit is proportionate to that aim. It is as vast as is the number of beings. The benefits of dedicating our hearts purely and sincerely in this way are much greater than the benefits of making an offering of an entire world full of gold and gems to the Buddha. Even if we were to feed all the beings in the universe, the benefits of having even just one moment of such a heart dedicated with a bodhichitta aim would be greater.

The logic of this can be established if we consider that a meal for everyone in the universe would satisfy people’s hunger only once. They would soon become hungry again, and their problem of hunger would persist. But if we wished, with a bodhichitta aim, to alleviate all problems for everyone for all time, and we dedicated ourselves to achieving enlightenment in order to do that as best as is possible, this would not only alleviate everyone’s hunger, but would bring about the ability to end their problems completely.

Concluding Remarks

Therefore, as a step toward developing a bodhichitta aim, we need to strongly pledge that we are not going harm any being. When we see all the disadvantages and drawbacks of hurting others, whomever they may be, and pledge not do so, this brings about great benefits. It is consequently the type of conduct that is very praiseworthy. A strong pledge that we are not going to hurt or harm anyone is a spiritual measure that we can all take right now. We don‘t need to think of spiritual practice as something very lofty and distant.

In short, to be a spiritual practitioner doesn’t involve having to live some sort of exotic life. There are many accounts in history of householders who have been great spiritual practitioners. When we look at the biographies of the eighty-four highly accomplished mahasiddhas of ancient India, there are many among them who were householders.

Neither do we need to become despondent if we are old, or think that older people can’t become spiritual practitioners. If we look at past accounts, there is the example of the householder Shrijati, who was 80 years old when he became a spiritual practitioner. He was able to achieve the state of a liberated being, or arhat, in his lifetime. So we are never too old.

On the other hand, if we are young we shouldn’t just be frivolous, but take advantage of whatever energies we have to be decisive in our spiritual practices. And we mustn’t think that we can put off taking these preventive spiritual measures until we are older, because there is no way of knowing when death will occur. Furthermore, old age is something that seems to come upon us all at once. When it does, it feels as though, all of a sudden, our life has slipped by.

There are many simple positive things we can do. I know of some people in other countries who spend a great deal of effort and money in feeding birds. They have feeders outside their houses and spend thousands on putting out feed each day. In fact, they give up their vacations because they don’t want to deprive the birds of their feed. This is an excellent practice; it makes me happy to see it, because this is really the type of practice of a bodhisattva . There are many examples of Tibetans as well who went to India as pilgrims and who put out bread for the pigeons and rice for the various types of birds. This is an excellent type of practice for bringing about a long life.

So, if we want to sum up our discussion this evening, the main points are:

  • Develop a kind and warm heart to work constantly for the benefit of everyone

  • Never hurt anyone or anything; never cause harm or problems.

These are the main points for an excellent spiritual practice. We need to take full advantage of this working basis that we have in our excellent human rebirth by dedicating our hearts purely, with a bodhichitta aim, to others and to achieving enlightenment. In this way, we will actually be able to achieve that state of a totally clear minded and fully evolved one – a fully enlightened Buddha.