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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Summary of the Graded Path to Enlightenment

Summary of the Graded Path to Enlightenment

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I
Dharamsala, India, October 1976
Translated by Alexander Berzin
Edited by Luke Roberts and Alexander Berzin

The Precious Human Rebirth

Why a Precious Human Rebirth Is Like a Wish-Fulfilling Gem

This precious human body that we have is more precious than a wish-fulfilling gem. It is a basis for leisure; but the leisure and opportunity that our body affords us is not to get high on drugs, but to practice Dharma. Why is the precious human body more precious than a wish-fulfilling gem? It is because with wish-fulfilling gems we can obtain food and drink for this lifetime, but a wish-fulfilling gem cannot benefit future lives. So this body that we have that affords us the opportunity to practice Dharma is more precious than such a gem.

All of us want happiness all the time and for as long a time as is possible. But no matter what happiness we achieve in this lifetime, it is very short lived since it lasts only this short lifetime. So if we want a long continuity of happiness, we need to think of our future lives. A wish-fulfilling gem cannot give us freedom from rebirth in the three lower realms and cannot grant us immortality. But by using this precious human body as a working basis, we can protect ourselves from lower rebirth; and, like Jetsun Milarepa, by using it as a basis for practicing Dharma, we can attain enlightenment in this lifetime. So since a wish-fulfilling gem cannot grant us these things that our precious human body can, our body is more precious than a wish-fulfilling gem.

So we need to practice Dharma with this precious human body. But we tend to hold the opposite view – although it is more precious than a wish-fulfilling gem, we use our body to acquire more and more wealth, and we are even prepared to sacrifice our life for this short-term goal. There are many people in the world wealthier and more intelligent than we are. But by using our precious human body to practice Dharma, we build up much more positive force (merit) than they do. So it’s important not to waste this precious human rebirth, but to use it to fulfill the three purposes it is useful for: attaining one of the better rebirths in the future, liberation, and enlightenment.

No matter how many material objects we possess, they won’t bring satisfaction. Even if a person owned all the material things in the world, he wouldn’t be satisfied. So it’s clear that even all the wish-fulfilling jewels cannot bring satisfaction. If someone acquires more and more wealth, it only brings more and more suffering. We can experience this fact ourselves – if we travel on a train or bus with a great deal of luggage, it is very difficult to travel; but if we didn’t have all these possessions, it would be very easy.

So we should try to practice Dharma like this. For example, Jetsun Milarepa, when living in his cave, didn’t have material possessions. Jetsun Milarepa and Shakyamuni Buddha realized how trivial and inessential material things were and gave them up to practice Dharma. And you too, who have lived in many rich countries in the world, have realized that material things are not so important and have left them behind to come here and to practice the Dharma.

Causes and Difficulty of Obtaining a Precious Human Rebirth

We need to consider why it is so hard to obtain this precious human body. It is difficult to obtain due to its causes being so difficult to build up. These causes are divided into three:

  • keeping strict ethical self-discipline,
  • practicing the six far-reaching attitudes (the six perfections),
  • offering pure aspirational prayers.

Keeping Strict Ethical Self-discipline

It is very difficult to keep strict ethical self-discipline, and it is very difficult for us to recognize and evaluate it in others. Also in terms of ethical self-discipline, there are the ten destructive actions, and we need to consider how most people in the world don’t even know what they are. And of course among those who do know what they are, most don’t practice avoiding them.

There are three destructive actions of body:

  • Taking a life: for example, we may know we shouldn’t kill, but when an insect bites us we instinctively slap and kill it.
  • Taking what has not been given: even if we don’t go out and commit a gross theft, we might use clever means to get things from other people, so it’s almost the same thing.
  • Indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior: we have many desires to stay with others’ partners.

We accumulate these destructive actions of the body each day like raindrops falling on us when we’re out in the rain.

The four destructive actions of speech:

  • Lying: we accumulate this all the time. For example, if we intend to go down the hill and someone asks us where we are going, we say we are going up the hill.
  • Speaking divisively: causing friends to become unfriendly with each other and those already not friendly to have even more enmity. We do this all the time by speaking badly of others.
  • Using abusive language or harsh words: this is not necessarily toward a human being. For instance, if the dog comes into our room we might say, “Scram! Get out of here!” and use harsh language. It’s a very great mistake to use abusive or harsh language, since we know when someone uses harsh language toward us we feel very hurt, and so others, including animals, also feel the same.
  • Speaking idle words: practically every word from our mouth is gossip: “I’ve been to that country,” “I’ve done this and that.” If you talk a lot, you increase the chances of committing this destructive action of speech. As I don’t know English, I don’t have the opportunity to gossip in English, and so I can only accumulate gossip in the Tibetan language!

The three destructive actions of mind:

  • Thinking covetous thoughts: someone has a very nice house, etc., and you desire it for yourself. This is not very good, but it’s something we have a lot of.
  • Thinking thoughts of malice: wishing for someone to be unhappy or to break their necks. This is something we don’t only wish for our enemies; we can also think with malice if our friends annoy us.
  • Distorted, antagonistic thinking: for example, thinking there’s no future rebirth or that the Three Jewels of Refuge cannot help anyone, or thinking that making a puja offering ceremony is a waste of time or offering butter lamps is a waste of butter or that making torma offerings is like throwing away tsampa.

It’s hard to prevent ourselves from committing these. And if you don’t prevent yourself from committing them, you can’t attain a precious human rebirth. There’s no time now to go into details, but if you wish to know more you should study the lam-rim teachings.

Practicing the Six Far-Reaching Attitudes

The second cause of obtaining a precious human rebirth is practicing the six far-reaching attitudes (six perfections): generosity, ethical self-discipline, patience, joyful perseverance, mental stability (concentration), and discriminating awareness (wisdom).

But instead of practicing generosity, we practice miserliness and extend out to others our miserly attitude. Instead of having patience, we have anger. Instead of having joyful perseverance with which we take pleasure in practicing Dharma, we have laziness and want to sleep all the time. Instead of having mental stability, we cultivate mental wandering – for example, when reciting a mantra our minds wander all over the place – and we cultivate further opportunities for this to happen.

Once there was a teacher who, while in the middle of a practice, remembered that there was a task that he wanted his disciple to do, but had forgotten to tell him. As soon as he remembered, he stopped his meditation, got up and told him to do it. This was his mind wandering. Whenever we do recitation practices, our mind wanders.

In terms of far-reaching discriminating awareness, we need to cultivate the discriminating awareness that understands voidness. But we study worldly things instead, like painting, so we don’t build up the right kind of knowledge.

In short, it is very difficult to build up the causes for a precious human rebirth. Seeing how rare it is to have such a body, we should think that we have it only this once and that it can be lost very easily. If we don’t take advantage of this precious human body we have attained, it will be very difficult to get another in the future.

Respites from the Eight Situations of No Leisure

The nature of this precious human rebirth is that it is free of the eight temporary situations of no leisure. A state of no leisure is one in which there is no chance to practice Dharma.

There are the four nonhuman states of no leisure:

  • In the hell realms there’s no chance to practice because your body is on fire all the time.
  • If born as a hungry ghost (a preta), you are constantly experiencing hunger and thoughts of food.

If we wake up in the morning and we don’t get breakfast, we are not willing to practice Dharma. If we wake up with a headache, we are not willing to practice Dharma. So, extrapolating from our experience, if we are born as a hungry ghost and go sixty years without food, we wouldn’t be interested in practicing Dharma.

So we need to appreciate that are free of hell and preta rebirth.

  • Animal rebirth: even if born the dog of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we can’t even recite the refuge prayer.

So we are not born in the hell, preta, or animal realms.

  • We haven’t been born as a long-life god: they have so much pleasure, worldly pleasure, that they have no interest in practicing Dharma.

Shariputra had a disciple who practiced very strong guru-devotion toward him. After the disciple died, he was reborn in a god realm. Shariputra, using his extrasensory powers, could see that his disciple had been born in that god realm. So then he thought he would go and visit his faithful disciple. When he went to the god realm, all his disciple did was wave “Hi!” to Shariputra and wasn’t interested in Dharma practice, since he was having such a good time. This is true, not a story.

We can see this from our experience. If someone is very poor, he is prepared to practice Dharma. But if he becomes wealthy and is very comfortable, he is not interested. So we are also very fortunate not to be born a long-life god.

There are four human states of no leisure:

  • The first one – the fifth state of no leisure – is that, for example, there are people born in countries or at a time when they can’t even hear a word of Dharma. So we are not in that situation.
  • There are some people born in barbaric societies in which all they are interested in is getting food and clothing. We are not in that situation.

In Tibet there is a mountain called Tsari. Tibetans go there every twelve years. The Loba tribe that lives there is very barbaric, and to go through their country one had to pay a tax. The tax was a yak, and when the Lobas got the yak they immediately would kill and eat it and drink the blood. So we are lucky not to be born in that situation.

  • We haven’t been born blind, deaf, insane, or dumb, etc. So we have that freedom from those obstacles to learning and practicing.
  • Also we haven’t been born in an area with a very irreligious attitude, thinking religion is no good and all that is worthwhile is making money.

So if we have a human rebirth free from all these states of no leisure and, in addition, we understand the causes for attaining it, we are doubly fortunate. Many people having such a precious human body don’t realize what the causes are for continuing to obtain further such rebirths.


We can use analogies to help us grasp the difficulty of obtaining a precious human body. For example, it is as rare as the grains of sand that would stick when thrown at a mirror.

If we think about these things, we’ll realize what a precious achievement our present human rebirth is, and we should think we are only able to get it this one time. Think about the hundreds of millions of people in India and how few are into practicing Dharma. So we can see how rare it is.

Once there was a lama giving a discourse on the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth. A Mongolian in the audience said, “If you think it’s so difficult to get a human rebirth, you should go to China and see how many people are there!” That would be like telling me I should go to the Soviet Union.

These are very good subjects to think about in meditation.

Taking Advantage of Our Precious Human Body and Living a Meaningful Life

If we think how hard we worked in previous lives to achieve this precious human body, we’ll be very fervent in our desire to make this life meaningful. An example would be if you had carried a load halfway up a mountain and then just let go of it, it would fall all the way down. The work we have done to obtain a precious human rebirth in this lifetime is like the work carrying the load halfway up the mountain; and if we let it go, then all that work would be wasted.

So now that we have a precious human body, we shouldn’t just wish for another in the future. As we have it now, we should use it now to attain the fully enlightened state of a Buddha. If we don’t, it would be the same as having a bag of rice just sitting there and not eating it, but just praying to have another bag in our next life. So we should take fullest advantage of our human rebirth now.

Being Mindful of Death

Death Is Certain

If we consider what kind of precious human body we have, it is not made of rock or metal. If it were, it could last a long time. Actually if we cut open our bodies to see what we have inside, it is a lot of blood and guts, like the entrails of animals people hang up in their houses after buying meat at a market. Our insides are as delicate as the insides of a clock.

If we think about death and about how many people have died, we can go through many rosaries counting them with each bead. If I thought about how many Tibetans have died since coming to Dharamsala, I could go through my entire rosary very quickly.

There’s no one who has been with a human body who hasn’t died. And if you think how plants and trees die, you can see it’s just a matter of time before you die. The natural conclusion of being born is to die. There’s nothing else one can do. The conclusion of our coming together here is to disperse, and the final conclusion of going up is to come down. Realizing that there is nothing else for us to do but die, we need to try to practice Dharma as much as possible before death comes.

And so we should think about how we will die. Imagine you are getting very sick, and your flesh turns an awful color, and you get weak, and all your relatives are crying and saying how awful it is, and the doctor comes and gives you medicine, but then he just clicks his tongue and says it’s too bad.

We Can Die at Any Time

Also, there’s no certainty as to when you’ll die. Very old parents with white hair can be seen burying the corpses of their children. And many people choke to death eating a normal meal.

For instance, you can think in terms of this example from Tibet. One man put some big chunks of meat aside and said he’d eat them in the morning, but the chunks of meat lasted longer than he did. Another example: I knew a potato farmer from Simla who was going to make fried bread for lunch, but died while the bread was still cooking.

So the best way to gain appreciation of impermanence and death is not to read about them from books, but to think of others we know who have died.

Only Dharma Can Help Us at the Time of Death

What is the importance of meditating on death? It shows that the only worthwhile thing to do is to practice Dharma.

If we think in terms of material things, you’ll see that we can’t take anything with us. For example, if you are a wealthy merchant who has made a lot of money, all you can have is a more expensive piece of cloth in which to wrap your body for cremating it. In terms of the amount of destructive actions this merchant has done to accumulate this wealth as he travelled from country to country, it may be enormous.

If you have many servants or workers or are a general commanding a hundred thousand soldiers, no one can come with you when you die. Even a country full of relatives can’t help: all they can do is stand about as you die, disturbing you very much and hindering very much your death and rebirth.

The only thing that can help at the time of death is the practice of Dharma, since if you’ve accumulated enough positive karmic force from constructive actions it can benefit greatly your future rebirths; but negative karmic force will hinder them. This is something you can understand without thinking about death. Many Tibetans were very wealthy in Tibet, but they had to leave carrying only their knowledge and the internal qualities they had at that time. So we need to practice the Dharma purely in our lifetime and not waste our time on worldly activities.

We should consider all worldly activities of this life as being inconsequential, like the chaff of wheat. Worldly activities have no essence. We should regard worldly activities as being like children making mud pies – all you can do is throw them away when finished. Children build sandcastles; but when they’ve finished playing with them, they just leave them behind and go away. This is how we should regard worldly activities.

If you think about all this, it will greatly help your Dharma practice.

The Lower Scopes of Motivation

The Initial Scope

If we consider all worldly activities as unnecessary and of no great importance, we realize that the only important thing is our practice of Dharma. To practice Dharma is to do something that will be of benefit to your future rebirths. For instance, to have the attitude: “Now I have attained a precious human rebirth; I’m going to use it to prevent falling to the lower realms in future lives” is the lowest level of advantage of our precious lives.

What will prevent us from falling to the three lower realms is keeping strict ethical self-discipline. But even if we set a very firm desire to keep ethical self-discipline, it gradually degenerates. So in order to prevent ourselves from falling to a lower rebirth, we need to rid ourselves of our disturbing emotions. This is like washing an extremely soiled piece of clothing – at first you use a little strength, and then slowly you increase your strength. To rid yourself of disturbing emotions, you start off slowly and gently and gradually work yourself up to a full strength effort. So to keep ethical self-discipline, you have to apply it slowly, and then through gradual application you can rid yourself of disturbing emotions; otherwise your efforts can easily degenerate.

If you follow ethical self-discipline to avoid rebirth in the three lower realms, this is the minimum level of practicing Dharma.

The Intermediate Scope

Even if we escape being born in the three lower realms and we’re born in our next life among the pleasures and joys of the god realms, or even as a human, we should try to realize that all samsaric rebirths are suffering. This is extensively discussed in the lam-rim teachings, but can be described by this example: You are standing in the sun and it gets very hot, and so you go inside. Then you’ve escaped the suffering of being hot, but are left with the suffering of being cold. There’s no place in samsara where we are free of suffering.

The disturbing emotions cause us to circle in samsara. The root – like the root of a tree – is grasping for truly independent identities. Our circling around in samsara is like going around on a merry-go-round and getting nowhere. The only way to get off is to elevate ourselves, get above it, rise above it. This is the idea of an arya, someone who has the discriminating awareness that realizes identitylessness, or lack of an impossible “soul.”

To cultivate this realization of voidness on our mental continuums, it is necessary to attain shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind; and to get this, we need ethical self-discipline. So the three higher trainings – the higher trainings of ethical self-discipline, absorbed concentration, and discriminating awareness – allow us to rise above samsara. If we practice these, we can put an end to our circling in samsara.

There are three classifications of beings that have elevated themselves:

  • Those who have achieved a seeing pathway mind (a path of seeing).
  • Those who have achieved an accustoming pathway mind (a path of meditation).
  • Those who have achieved a pathway mind needing no further training.

Beings with a seeing pathway of mind newly have nonconceptual straightforward cognition of voidness. Those with an accustoming pathway of mind meditate further and further and accustom themselves to, or build up the habit of this nonconceptual cognition of voidness. If you have meditated and meditated and completely habituated your mind to this cognition of voidness and have completely removed forever from your mind the emotional obscurations preventing liberation, you are an arhat, a liberated being.

The Advanced Scope of Motivation

Love and Compassion

But it is not sufficient to liberate yourself alone, because all limited beings (sentient beings) are in this predicament. All limited beings are the same in that all of them are suffering and all wish to get out of it. If we develop the mind that wishes all limited beings to be free from suffering, this is called “compassion.” But in order to cultivate this wish for all limited beings to be parted from suffering, you have to have meditated on your own suffering for a long time, and then, realizing how horrible it is, you can develop renunciation – the determination to be free. Once you’ve gained the idea of how horrible suffering is and wish to get right out of it yourself, then you apply that thought to all beings. That’s compassion.

Thus renunciation is the wish for me to be out of suffering, whereas compassion is the wish for all beings to be out of suffering. The difference between compassion and love is that with compassion we think, “How wonderful it would be if all limited beings were parted from suffering and the causes for suffering”; whereas love is the wish for all beings to be endowed with happiness and with the causes for happiness.

How to Develop Equanimity and Bodhichitta

What is the reason we don’t have love and compassion? Why don’t we wish for all to be free of suffering and have happiness? It’s because our minds are not smooth – they are rough; they have high points and low points. What is this unevenness of our minds? It’s that we have a great deal of attachment for our relatives and our friends, and when we see our enemies we have a great deal of aversion.

So how do we make a rutted road even? We can understand by thinking about this example: One person gave you a hundred rupees yesterday, and another person gave you a hundred rupees today. The person who gave you a hundred rupees yesterday punched you in the face this morning, and the person who gave you a hundred rupees today punched you in the face yesterday. Who should you like and who should you not like?

So, like this, we have to think how our enemies in the past have benefited us a great deal and, in the future, may come to be of great help. Likewise, our friends have done a great deal of harm to us in the past and will do so again in the future. It’s just a matter of time.

Another example: There are various people who are cannibals, or even werewolves or vampires. We might find them very attractive and marry one of them, but one night their fangs will come out and they will eat us up.

When you hit a dog, it barks and bites you. So if we get angry at an enemy, we are reacting the same way as a dog would. So we need to eliminate this unevenness of mind, this attachment and repulsion we have, and achieve equanimity of mind. On top of that state of equanimity, one can develop love and compassion – like you have to pave a rutted road for a car to travel on it.

We have to have powerful thoughts like the dynamite that blasts and flattens a road. What sort of thoughts? Thinking of the kindness of other limited beings. For instance, we drink milk. This comes from cows and water buffaloes. They go out and eat grass and drink water, and all we do is take the milk from them. Rabbits and rats are used for medical experiments, so the medicines we have are at the expense of the rats and the rabbits who gave their lives for us.

There are some limited beings we consider our enemies and who harm us. But if we compare the harm they have done to us with their kindness, the latter greatly outweighs the former. And the harm they give us can be very helpful. To become a Buddha, we need to develop patience, and for this we need obnoxious people. If everyone were very nice, we couldn’t develop patience. The ones who get angry at us are limited beings, not Buddhas; so those are the ones who teach us patience. For instance, when Atisha came to Tibet he brought with him a very obstreperous Indian who always tested his patience. When asked why he brought him, he said it was to practice patience. So, limited beings and Buddhas are equal in their kindness to us. This is attested to in Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior.

There’s a reason why a Buddha doesn’t get angry. It’s because he has single-minded concentration free of all disturbing emotions. Because a Buddha has this single-minded concentration, he doesn’t get angry. So we need to develop this. In the morning we need to wake with two thoughts:

  • Today I’m not going to cause others to get angry.
  • I’m not going to let others get me angry.

If we accustom ourselves to this, we’ll be able to lessen our disturbing emotions and eventually develop the state free forever of disturbing emotions and thus become Buddhas.

If we ask what is it that we can do to please the Buddhas, it is to help and be kind to limited beings. This really pleases the Buddhas. For example, if there are parents and they have children, we can make the parents happier by being kind to the children rather than being kind to only the parents. Similarly a Buddha is happier if we are kind to limited beings as well as to the Buddhas. So on the basis of all this, we need to try to develop a bodhichitta aim: “I’m going to attain the state of a Buddha to benefit all limited beings.”

Attaining Enlightenment in This Lifetime

Even more, we need to have a very strong intention to attain this state of a Buddha for the sake of all limited beings in this very lifetime, right now. Buddha said there is a way to attain enlightenment in this lifetime. And what is that way? It’s by the tantric path. If you follow this, it is possible to attain enlightenment in this lifetime.

Even though we have a very strong intention to attain enlightenment in this lifetime, we shouldn’t think it is easy, because we have accumulated a great deal of destructive actions since beginningless time. Tantra may be speedy, but it’s a very difficult path. We shouldn’t think practicing the tantric path is speedy like taking an airplane – it’s not that easy. For example, Jetsun Milarepa underwent many hardships with his guru, Marpa – building towers, being beaten, and undergoing a great deal of suffering. Because of this, he could achieve enlightenment in that lifetime. But we’re not willing to undergo a fraction of the hardships that Milarepa underwent.

If we do have a strong intention to attain enlightenment in this lifetime and are prepared to undergo great difficulties, then there’s a chance that if we practice steadily we can, in fact, attain Buddhahood ourselves.