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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Self-Transformation through the Lam-rim Graded Stages

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, October 2008

Session Six: Review and What Is an Arhat

Unedited Transcript
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We have been discussing the lam-rim and the lam-rim is a scheme for organizing the basic sutra teachings. We have seen that it is referring to lam – that's translated as "path." It refers to states of mind which will act as a pathway for leading to a goal. And they are progressive like rungs in a ladder. Let me correct that; they're not like rungs of a ladder. They are like the stories of a building. A rung of a ladder, when you go to the next one you leave the lower one. So it's not like that. It's not progressive like rungs of a ladder, but rather these are progressive like stories of a building that each story of a building rests on the lower stories. So when you are on a higher story, let's say the third story, in fact you are on a foundation of the first, second and third stories. So we have all of them. And so we have three scopes here and the three scopes are the pathway minds that will lead to better rebirth, to liberation from all uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and which will lead to enlightenment. Enlightenment refers to having the ability to help lead everybody to overcome uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

All of these then are built on the assumption of rebirth – rebirth meaning individual mental continuums that have no beginning and no end. We have seen that many of us, particularly in the West, follow a Dharma-lite version of lam-rim. And Dharma-lite is aimed at using the methods of Dharma, as contained within the lam-rim, basically to help improve this lifetime. As I mentioned, Dharma-lite by itself is not able to bring us to enlightenment, as the initial and intermediate scopes by themselves are not able to bring us to enlightenment. But if we follow Dharma-lite with the intention, as well as with acknowledgment that we need the three scopes, and with respect for that, and with the intention to try to go beyond Dharma-lite and eventually, when we're ready, to develop ourselves through the three scopes and eventually work to achieve enlightenment – so we're following the Dharma-lite as a stepping-stone on the way full path to enlightenment – then this is perfectly fine. That doesn't mean that following Dharma-lite not within this context is useless. It definitely is useful. But it's going to be far more powerful in terms of an actual Buddhist method if we follow it as a stepping-stone to the higher stages.

Also we mentioned how the lam-rim material is the type of material that we need to go over and over and over again. And as we learn more of the teachings of the Dharma, then we need to go back and connect them to all the various points of the lam-rim, because all of the different points of Dharma network with each other and reinforce each other. And so we'll gain more depth in our understanding and our development if we follow this procedure. Also if we try to incorporate the motivating emotion of the advanced scope, in other words compassionlove and compassion for everyone – and use this as the driving force for our development of all these graduated stages – and in a sense supplement the motivating emotion that's there, specified in the teachings of that scope – then our whole practice, our whole practice will fit within the realm or sphere of Mahayana practice.

I wouldn't call this "grand compassion" or "great compassion."

Translator: Just compassion.

Alex: Why? Because great compassion is, well, compassion in general, is the wish for everybody to be free – for others to be free of the suffering and the causes of suffering. Now "great" compassion is wishing them to be free from the deepest type of suffering. The all-encompassing affecting suffering from having these recurring aggregates. And it's great and vast in the sense that it is equally expended to absolutely every limited being? That's asking a bit too much for – it'd be in the context of the whole development. So, just compassion, the wish for others to be free from their suffering and the causes for it, would be sufficient here.

Now we have discussed yesterday how to become a person of initial scope motivation. And it's not just a matter of studying the various contents of the teachings concerning this or even memorizing and learning all of the lists that are involved but it actually means to transform ourselves completely into someone like this. And when we speak about full transformation of ourselves, I think we can understand this from the way in which this is described regarding having a bodhichitta aim. In the first chapter of Shantideva's Engaging in the Bodhisattva Behavior, the Bodhicharyavatara, Shantideva mentions quite strongly that once we have developed bodhichitta, a bodhichitta aim, then whether day or night, or even if we are intoxicated, then still the positive force grows more and more.

Now, this is not referring to actually the first moment that we develop bodhichitta, but it is when we develop what is called "unlabored" bodhichitta. You don't have to put any work into it. What this is referring to is normally in order to have this bodhichitta aim, initially what we have to do is go through all the stages of building up to that aim. In other words, going through the seven-part cause and effect meditation or the equalizing and exchanging self for others, like that we need to put labor into it, work into it to build it up. And here what we're talking about is when that's not necessary, when it's just there, all the time. So we don't have to go through all the stages to build it up. In the presentation of the five paths leading to either arhatship or Buddhahood – these are talking about five pathway minds, not paths – the first of these – it's usually translated as "the path of accumulation," which I don't like that translation. It's a building up pathway mind. You build up basically shamatha with this pathway mind – the Mahayana form of it is attained. So you attain the first pathway mind when you have unlabored bodhichitta. That's when it all starts in terms of the presentation of these so-called paths and stages.

Let me make my statement a little more specific. It's not that we're building up shamatha just by itself. We're building up a combined shamatha and vipashyana focused on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. Or if we want to simplify it, focused on voidness.

So unlabored bodhichitta means that we have this general aim. It is underlying our whole mental continuum all the time. This is the main focus of our lives. We don't have to remind ourselves of it. We don't have to go through the seven-part cause and effect or anything like that to build it back up again. It's there all the time. This is what Shantideva's referring to. In Western terminology, we would say that the bodhichitta aim doesn't have to be conscious; it's unconsciously there all the time, even when we're asleep. So, similarly by extension, we could say when we really have become an authentic person of each of these scopes, let's say aiming for improving future lives and ensuring that we continue to have a precious human rebirth, what we're really aiming for is to have that unlabored, that we don't have to go through all the steps in the meditations of precious rebirth and death and impermanence and lower realms and refuge and karma, that we just have this in an unlabored manner. This aim, all the time. Even when it's not conscious.

So this is no small accomplishment. This is what I was referring to in terms of having these motivations fully, fully integrated. And it doesn't exclude taking care of our affairs of this lifetime, but that's not our major focus. And to reach this level of initial scope, then we have to be totally convinced – no doubt at all – about rebirth, basically. That there are going to be future rebirths. And that it is going to be affected by karma and that I better do something about it. And that I can do something about it to ensure that I continue to have better rebirths. You have to be totally convinced of this.

Now, that doesn't mean that we can't work further on the path before we've reached this full level of being a initial scope person. We reach a certain level in the development of this initial scope and we still have to build it up going through the procedures of meditation and so on. That's fine. Then we can go further. In other words, what we're doing – and this can be even before we have total conviction in rebirth – what we're doing is saying, "Well, I'm not totally convinced, but I'm going in that direction and my indecisive wavering is more in that direction and so I give it the benefit of the doubt, and then let's go on from there."

However, if we are at this stage where it's not totally integrated, this means – and we are going on to the further steps – this means that we still have a lot of work to do on the initial scope. That's why I said you have to go back over and over and over again on these various stages. As it says in the bodhisattva vows even, we can extend it here: don't be satisfied with what we have achieved so far; we haven't gotten the real thing.

Now, intermediate scope. The intermediate scope is even more difficult and profound than the initial scope. Here we are aiming for overcoming uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether. Now, think about it. If we are sincerely someone of initial scope motivation, it is very, very easy and quite natural to be attached to a precious human rebirth. What are we always praying for, as an initial scope? “May I continue to have a precious human rebirth. May I continue to be with all my friends and all my Dharma companions and with my guru and have all the wonderful circumstances and so on.” Very attached.

That is very tough, to overcome that attachment and understand what it means to have renunciation. Because if we think we're going to now have good health, and a young, strong healthy body, and a good mind, and all these things – we're very, very attached to these things. And so what does this intermediate scope mean? That I don't want any of that anymore? I want to become a liberated being; an arhat? What in the world does that mean? Does that mean I'm never going to see my friends again? I mean, it's very, very difficult to have even a conception of what it would be to be a liberated being.

That's it. So it's very difficult to go beyond the wish for continuing to have better rebirths, precious human rebirths – with friends, and wealth, and circumstances, and to live in a peaceful time, and everything's so wonderful, etc. I'm talking about the Dharma things. How about being attached to the worldly things? I'll be young, and I'll be falling in love again and all these sort of pleasures. Especially as we become older in this lifetime and we think how wonderful it would be to have everything that – you know – all my senses, I can see better, hear better, have more energy, be more attractive than other people if I were young again. And so, "I wish for a precious human rebirth" becomes very much mixed with a wish to be young again. So these are the things, if you're looking at this intermediate scope seriously, that we have to consider and work with. And I must admit that this is a really difficult step. And bodhichitta's even more difficult; I mean I want to liberate every being that currently is reborn as an insect, come on. It's really sincere about that.

So where do we even start to work on this? This is not an easy question. I suppose one of the more perplexing issues here is what would it be like to be a liberated being, to be an arhat. If that's what I'm aiming to be, it would be really nice to have a clear idea of what I'm getting myself into, if I become an arhat.

Now there are many different types of assertions concerning what is an arhat, depending on the school of tenets in India, of the Indian Buddhist schools. We are following a Mahayana path here. So we do not accept any of the Hinayana assertions, which is that after you become an arhat and you die, then your mental continuum ends. So that is – what shall we say – not what we are dealing with here. That's not our conception of an arhat. We've already dealt with the issue that the mental continuum goes on forever.

So, as a liberated being, as an arhat, first of all there are two types. We're not talking here about the shravaka and pratyekabuddha types, so let's discount that for our consideration. But within arhats, there are two types. There's an arhat who becomes a liberated being or is aiming to become a liberated being and after becoming a liberated being, only then eventually develops bodhichitta and goes on to continue on the bodhisattva path. That's one type. Then there are those arhats, they're called "arhats of definite lineage," which means that way before becoming an arhat, they developed bodhichitta and they were aiming to become a Buddha and they achieved arhatship on the way to Buddhahood.

So if we look first at these – the first type, let's call them Hinayana-type arhats, after they die, then their mental continuum continues in a pure realm. And those who are of a definite lineage can continue either in a pure realm or they can manifest in our ordinary planes of existence.

Now, they have overcome samsaric existence, uncontrollably recurring rebirth – both. This word "uncontrollable," that doesn't apply in the opposite: that one can control it. So it's not the best choice of words. That word "control" is referring to the word "power." So it's rebirth under the power of disturbing emotions and karma. So, when one becomes a liberated being one no longer will have what's called "obtainer aggregates" – aggregates that have been obtained through the power of disturbing emotions and karma. This is referring to after they die – through the mechanism of the twelve links of dependent arising. But they will continue to have aggregates, body and mind, but not obtained from karmic disturbing emotions and so they won't be mixed with karma and disturbing emotions.

The body of an arhat will be made of subtle elements. "Elements" from the Buddhist point of view are earth, water, fire, and winds. So solid, liquid, gas and energy. These subtle elements in a pure realm will be something which is visible to the eyes of other arhats and to their own eyes, but won't be visible to us ordinary humans, for example. So, another name for this type of elements, this type of body, is called a "mental body." But not like in a dream or something like that. It's more similar to the type of body that beings on the plane of ethereal forms, the so-called “form realm” have. And then they would stay like that in a pure realm and there's no – it's not as though they were born there, they sort of appear there – and they would have no sickness, old age or death. Life can go on forever. In fact the continuum goes on forever. So they can either just stay there in what's called "the extreme of complacency," continuing to meditate on voidness – to meditate, etc. Or they can develop bodhichitta there and continue in a pure realm studying and practicing Mahayana, or manifest in our ordinary realms.

But for us following the lam-rim, the graded stages of Mahayana path, we don't want to hang out in a pure land. Now of course there are practices that we find in tantra for transference of consciousness to a pure land and so on. Because, as a bodhisattva, in a pure land, we have no distractions and so you – it's not that you hang out and have a good time in a pure land, but you spend twenty-four hours a day, forever, practicing, studying and practicing, in a pure land. This is bodhisattva. So we can either do that as an arhat, as a bodhisattva arhat, or one can manifest in this world and continue to try to help others. And of course there are... perhaps I suppose it's a personal disposition or temperament. You want to do intensive type of practice in a pure land or are you really more drawn to actually trying to help people as much as possible at our levels.

Translator: Those who practice twenty-four hours a day in a pure land still need bodhichitta, in order to achieve Buddhahood even more quickly?

Alex: Yes. Right. That's the point. To practice in a pure land for twenty-four hours a day forever with the intention that then I will be able to achieve Buddhahood more quickly. So this is an interesting question in terms of debate: Where do you build up more positive force? In a pure land studying or here in our world trying to help others? And that's a point of debate.

So we're aiming to be a Mahayana arhat, a bodhisattva arhat.

Now, we get to a difficult point to understand. When we, as an arhat and the subtle elements of body manifest in the ordinary world, then what is happening is that there is a connection with the gross elements of the sperm and egg of the parents, similar to when a Buddha manifests or emanates in this world. Now, this is not a Hindu concept of a "soul" or some sort of material subtle body coming and entering into the gross elements of the sperm and egg, it's not that. Or that it is a separate thing that is using this grosser body, or owns it, or possesses it or anything like that.

So the same type of voidness analysis we use in terms of relation of the self or "me" with the aggregates, we apply here. So, without going into detail here because we don't have time – it's to be filled in later in your classes, what we would say is that just as the self, the "me," can be imputed on the basis of the gross elements of the body, etc., similarly the subtle elements of the body of an arhat or a Buddha can be imputed on the basis of the gross elements of the sperm and egg of the parents. And what is being imputed is not identical to the basis for imputation. This is very much discussed in the analysis of voidness. So the gross elements of the body, the basis of imputation, they are subject to birth, sickness, old age, and death, but not the subtle elements of the body of the arhat or the Buddha; they are liberated from that.

So, in a sense we're not going off and leaving our gurus and leaving our friends and so on when we become a liberated being, because we're not aiming to hang out in some pure land where we just – not do very much. Enjoy the peace of nirvana, it's called.

So we will still be able to be associated with the guru and the friends and so on, all these things, but obviously without attachment. Little bit of an idea of what we're talking about.

When we speak about tainted and untainted aggregates, it's usually translated as "contaminated" and "uncontaminated" – a terrible expression. According to the Gelug Prasangika explanation and definition of tainted and untainted: Tainted aggregates are those who produce an appearance of truly established existence and untainted aggregates are those that do not produce such an appearance. So when an arhat is totally absorbed on voidness and the mind is not producing an appearance of truly established existence, at that time the aggregates of the arhat are untainted. In the subsequent attainment periods, in other words subsequent to absorption on voidness – whether you're still in meditation on something else or not in meditation – then the mind does produce an appearance of truly established existence. At that time, the aggregates of an arhat are tainted.

So, arhats sometimes have tainted aggregates sometimes have untainted aggregates. If we speak just in terms of – in general. So we were saying – where as a Buddha only has untainted aggregates. In other words a Buddha is always totally absorbed on voidness. So there's a difference between the subtle elements of the body of a Buddha and the subtle elements of the body of an arhat. Even though both, when in this world, are imputed on the basis of the gross elements of the body of the parents – the sperm and egg of the parents.

So this is a lot of information. And perhaps information that you're not familiar with. However, if we start to work with this and try to figure out what in the world does this mean? Okay. A liberated being. This is what I'm aiming for. As a liberated being, I want to continue on the bodhisattva path. So let's say I want to continue working here, benefiting others. So, I will continue to manifest in this world. Undoubtedly it's not in terms of, you know, here's a list of possible parents and I'll choose one now, it's under my control, where I'm going to be reborn. But undoubtedly for many, many factors dependently arising, then there will be a connection between my arhat's subtle elements and the gross elements of the sperm and egg of a couple – human couple.

Now gross elements of course are subject to all the laws of impermanence, etc. and so the gross elements themselves of course are going to develop – they're going to sometimes get faults or sickness, they're going to wear out and they're going to end having the capacity to be a basis for my mind as a liberated being. They are subject to physical laws. So although those gross elements are subject to the laws of physics, they are not subject to the laws of karma: what happens with them is not under the power of disturbing emotions and karma. It's just under the power of general physical laws. But my subtle body is not going to be subject to death, sickness, old age, and death.

And as an arhat I will not experience anything that happens with the grosser elements with any of the three types of suffering: suffering of unhappiness, suffering of our ordinary happiness, and the all-affecting, all-encompassing suffering. Everything I will experience either with happiness – which is not our ordinary happiness mixed with grasping for true existence – or with equanimity, similarly not mixed with grasping for true existence and attachment, etc. Because as an arhat, we could be absorbed in some of these higher planes or levels of mental constancy in which there's only equanimity. As a Buddha, we would have only happiness, unmixed with any of the disturbing emotions, etc. It's described in tantra in terms of blissful awareness, etc..

Now, I've spent a great deal of time, and we don't have a great deal of time, on describing what it would be like to be an arhat. I have spent this amount of time because I must say – since I'm explaining a little bit in terms of my own personal experience working with this material – that this is one of the big blocks in terms of really considering seriously the intermediate scope. Because, okay, you give up samsara, but then what?! And without a clear idea of "then what," it's very hard to say, "Wow, I want to get rid of samsaric rebirth!"

Let's take a few minutes to digest what we have covered.


One point of clarification is that the subtle body of an arhat is not the same as the subtle bodies of a Buddha, physical bodies of a Buddha; you shouldn't confuse the two. The subtle bodies of a Buddha that's called Nirmanakaya and Samboghakaya, are far more subtle than the subtle so-called mental body of an arhat. But the manner in which they are imputed on the gross elements of a mother and father is the same.

[Now, what happens to us in this lifetime – before we are a liberated being – in our samsaric existence ripens as a result of an enormous amount of factors, including various karmic factors on our mental continuum and the karmic factors on other beings' mental continuums.

Translator: The bodies we acquire?]

Alex: Just what happens. Who we meet – I drive my car and somebody runs in front of it and I hit them. Well, that is happening as a result of my karma and their karma, not just my karma. Whereas what happens to us when we are arhats or Buddhas, let's say the various people that we meet that we're going to try to help – mind you we're talking about as a bodhisattva arhat, this is our focus here – is going to be the result of, from our side, our compassion and our prayers to be able to benefit everyone and on the side of the others, from their karma. So it's not a result of our own karma. It's a result of – what's influencing here is our wish to benefit everybody. That's why we do these Mahayana practices of visualizing an innumerable number of beings around us in order to try to establish that connection with innumerable beings. So that as a result of our prayer and our compassion, then that will be one factor, in combination with the karma of the others, for us to meet them and have a positive influence on them.

So when we, as a bodhisattva arhat or a Buddha, interact with somebody or meet somebody, we're not going to have any disturbing emotions toward that person. We're going to have no attachment, no desire, or hostility, or anything like that. Whereas the other person – from their side, since they're meeting us as a result of karma, among other factors – then they could have attachment to us, they could be hostile to us, etc. But we would have just complete compassion, equanimity, equal attitude toward everybody, etc. So the form of the interaction, the dynamics of it, would be quite different from outside and from inside.

So this fills out a little bit more the picture of what it is that we're aiming for with this intermediate scope and we've dealt a little bit with what we're aiming for with the advanced scope as well. This I think is very, very helpful for taking seriously wanting to develop ourselves to be persons of intermediate and advanced scopes and know what we're aiming for more clearly.