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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Explanation of The Foundation for Good Qualities > Session One: The Spiritual Master and a Precious Human Rebirth

Explanation of The Foundation for Good Qualities

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I
translated by Alexander Berzin
Ulverston, England, October 1982

[edited transcript]

Session One: The Spiritual Master and a Precious Human Rebirth

Tsongkhapa, the Author of the Text

All of you here have great interest in the Dharma and great intentions to follow the teachings. You’ve invited me here to give you teachings and I’m very happy to be with you. I’ve been asked to teach the text called The Foundation for Good Qualities (Yon-tan gzhi-gyur-ma) by the great Tibetan master, Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa). 

The Foundation for Good Qualities is not very long; it is written in very few words. However, what’s spoken about in these few words is extremely extensive. This particular text is included in such pujas as the Jorcho (sByor-chos) – The Preliminary Puja, sometimes called The Lam-rim Puja. In The Preliminary Puja, it constitutes the section in which requests are made. This text addresses all the points of the great classics and is arranged in terms of how one practices. Specifically, it is organized in accordance with the stages or practices for individuals of initial, intermediate, and advanced levels of motivation, as found in A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, the Bodhipathapradipa (Byang-chub lam-sgron), by the supreme master Atisha, the greatest of all the learned pandits of India. 

[See: A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment .] 

The personal instructions and teachings found in our text derive from the lineages of the great pioneers of India, Nagarjuna and Asanga. These two were like the sun and the moon, and stand out among all the various learned masters of India. Nagarjuna derived his instructions from the ever-vigilant Manjushri, while Asanga derived his from Maitreya. The lineages that extend from these two masters are called, respectively, “the lineage of the profound view” and “the lineage of extensive behavior.” The fourth Buddha of our time, the universal teacher Buddha Shakyamuni, however, is the ultimate source of both lines.  

The Buddha Shakyamuni turned the wheel of Dharma three times. In these three rounds of transmission, he set forth the teachings on the various paths for ripening the minds of all limited beings (all sentient beings). Buddha had many disciples, among whom were the original circle of his five disciples, and then the listeners to the teachings (shravakas), the self-evolvers (pratyekabuddhas), and the dedicated beings (bodhisattvas). Many of his followers achieved the state of a liberated being (an arhat).

Pema Nangsu-chen, one of Buddha’s disciples, offered Buddha a crystal rosary with a sincerely dedicated heart of bodhichitta. He made earnest prayers that the teachings spread far and wide. Buddha then predicted that he who offered the crystal rosary of a hundred beads would be reborn in the northern land called “Tibet.” In a future life, this person would propagate the teachings far and wide, and would crown a statue of the Buddha in Tibet and make extensive offerings to it. 

Another time, when Buddha Shakyamuni was in summer retreat, the small boy Luchig made an offering of a Dharma conch to the Buddha in the assembly of the retreat. The Buddha entrusted it to his disciple Maudgalyayana (Mo’u ‘gal-gyi bu), who was supremely skilled in the powers of emanation, and told him to bury it in the Northern Land of Snows at a place where a lake and cliffs met. He said that in the future, a great propagation of the Dharma would emanate from that place.

In accordance with this prophecy, the great Tsongkhapa was born in the Northern Land of Snows and unearthed the Dharma conch that had been buried there. He entrusted this treasure to one of his disciples, Jamyang Chojey (‘Jam-dbyangs Chos-rje), who built the great monastery of Drepung (‘Bras-spungs) where 7,700 monks eventually were in residence. In this way, Tsongkhapa came to propagate the teachings in Tibet.   

Also in accordance with the prophecy, Tsongkhapa made an extensive study of the fields of sutra and tantra. He achieved perfect mastery in studying and listening to the teachings. Not only did Tsongkhapa listen to the Dharma teachings, he also thought about them and meditated upon them, building them up as positive habits of the mind. In this way, he achieved total mastery of the full process of listening to teachings, thinking or pondering about them, and then meditating on them. By means of this, he was able to ripen the mind-streams of innumerable disciples and enact many enlightening deeds

Of all of the enlightened deeds of his enlightening body, speech and mind, Tsongkhapa developed supreme mastery over the good qualities of enlightening speech. His teachings were gathered into the many volumes of his collected works, covering all the main topics of the great Indian Buddhist classics. The texts he composed are the main works that we study now. These teachings are extremely clear, extremely extensive, and extremely worthy to be taken as authoritative. They are for us something like a major thoroughfare or highway that is extremely easy to travel. 

Among these works, we have here one particular text of very few words, but with an extremely extensive subject matter. This text is called The Foundation for Good Qualities, and is what we are concerned with here, today.  

Motivation

To study this text properly, it is necessary to have the most excellent type of attitude as our motivation. If we listen to this and study it merely because we think that there will be some strange things in it or because of intellectual curiosity to discover something that we haven’t heard before, that will be a very small motivation, very trivial. If we are listening to this in order to be able to improve things in this lifetime and have things go well, this is likewise a very small scope of thought. 

We might be aware of future lives and the possibility of falling to one of the worse states of rebirth. We may think of all the sufferings and problems that we might have there, and become mindful of death and impermanence in this way. Considering the possibilities of falling to a lower rebirth, we might listen to these teachings in order to avoid that type of thing and improve our future lives. To have such concerns as our motivation is also no big deal.

If we think about all the uncontrollably recurring situations of samsara, the highest of these would be rebirth as a god. Among such rebirths, we could be reborn as the god Indra, for instance. Even if we were to be reborn as Indra, however, we would experience nothing but problems and suffering. So, aware of this, we might develop the state of mind with which we wish to be free from all types of uncontrollably recurring situations of samsara. To have this as our motivation is likewise not very great. 

There is no one kinder to us than other beings, other sentient beings. Just as we want to be happy and don’t want any problems or suffering, likewise everybody else feels exactly the same. Moreover, if we think about it, everyone has been kind to us in some way or another. Therefore, it is only proper that we be concerned with all those kind beings. We would then think to try to bring them every type of happiness and relieve them of all their problems and sufferings. If we ask ourselves if we have the ability to do this, and the answer is “ no,” well who does? Only a fully enlightened Buddha, someone who is totally clear-minded and fully evolved, has this ability. What we need to do, then, is to try to achieve the state of a fully enlightened Buddha in order to be able to benefit all beings as much as is possible. It is with this highest motivation that we need to listen to these teachings. We need to develop as our motivation a totally dedicated heart of bodhichitta and, with that motivation, listen to these teachings.

The Greatness of the Source of the Teachings

The most beneficial way to listen to Dharma teachings entails a number of steps. The first step is to appreciate the greatness of the source of a teaching. This has already been referred to when we began today. The source of these teachings is the Buddha Shakyamuni. The Buddha Shakyamuni first of all dedicated his heart purely to others and to achieving enlightenment – in other words, he developed a bodhichitta aim. He then built up a vast and bountiful store of positive potential (a collection of merit). In the end, he became fully enlightened and enacted many enlightening deeds. His lineages continued through Manjushri and Maitreya, and from them to Nagarjuna and Asanga, and eventually through Atisha down to the great Tsongkhapa. These are the lineage teachers of the graded stages of the paths of the mind (lam-rim), and each of them has an enlightening biography. These biographies are good to study. Maybe they have already been translated into English or, if not, they can be translated. If I were to go into detail on all of this, it would become very extensive and difficult to finish. 

The main source of this teaching is The Three Collections or Three Baskets of the teachings (The Tripitaka), and specifically, within The Sutra Collection, The Prajnaparamita SutrasThe Sutras of Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras). These sutras speak directly about voidness (emptiness) or reality, and indirectly about the various stages of its realization. This theme was elaborated upon in the texts coming from Maitreya and Asanga. Specifically, Abhisamayalamkara (mNgon-rtogs rgyan), A Filigree of Realizations, discusses these stages, deriving from the various points of the sutras and the shastras (the Indian texts that explain them). Coming down through time, we have the various commentaries and texts of the great Tsongkhapa that elaborate upon and condense their major points. 

So, the main sources for the teachings of this text, The Foundation for Good Qualities, are the various texts that I’ve just mentioned. Tsongkhapa wrote two more comprehensive texts that contain these instructions concerning the graded stages of the path: Lam-rim chen-mo (A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path) and Lam-rim chung-wa (A Smaller Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path). The Foundation for Good Qualities incorporates all the major points that Tsongkhapa gave in his grand and smaller presentations of the graded stages of the mind, and arranges them in a manner easy for practice and comprehension.

Avoiding Hindrances to the Practice of This Text

In order to practice the teachings in this text successfully, we need to rid ourselves of various attitudes that would act as hindrances – for instance, thinking that certain teachings of the Buddha are good, whereas others are bad. Doing that, we build up great negative potentials with respect to the Dharma teachings of the Buddha and this will steal away any possibility for success. There are some who put down the Modest Vehicle of Mind (Hinayana), and others who say that the Modest Vehicle teachings are good, whereas the Vast Vehicle teachings (Mahayana) are not the words of the Buddha. In this way, both of them disparage the teachings. There are others who, even though they accept the Vast Vehicle teachings, say that the tantra teachings are likewise not the words the Buddha. In this way, they put down those teachings. Doing that ruins all possibilities of success.

We need to keep in mind the very important points from the Modest Vehicle teachings. For instance, the Modest Vehicle includes the various teachings on impermanence and on the four placements of close mindfulness – the ways to place our mindfulness closely on four different types of objects. These are extremely important points that we all need to realize and put into practice. 

There are some who look at the Vast Vehicle teachings in terms of its instructions concerning the behavior and actions of the dedicated bodhisattvas. Then they look at the Modest Vehicle teachings in terms of its emphasis on training in the Vinaya rules of ethical self-discipline. They then put down either one or the other, thinking that the two sets of teachings do not fit harmoniously together. Such prejudiced attitude also ruins any possibilities for success. 

We need to realize that all these points in Buddha’s teachings need equally to be put into practice, and they need to be put into practice in their proper order. When we follow them in a graduated or graded order, this makes it easier to gain realizations of them. This is because the realizations will then come about in their proper graded order. By following in this way, we can make full use of the working bases of our precious human lives with all their respites and enrichments for Dharma practice, and reach an enlightened state. 

A Wholehearted Commitment to a Spiritual Master

To be able to follow this graded path, it is necessary to know what the root of it is, through which it derives all its nourishment. Its root is following the instructions of a kind and perfect spiritual master who knows everything concerning these paths of mind, without any mistakes. The spiritual mentor and friend is the basis on which to rely for being able to achieve all good qualities. In fact, our success totally depends on such a person. 

Moreover, just for the spiritual master on his or her side to be a Buddha, a totally enlightened person, is not of specific help to us just by itself. Rather, what is of help to us, in terms of our own practice as a disciple, is being able to recognize that our spiritual master is an enlightened being. That is the point of the practice of recognizing that our spiritual master is a Buddha. Since this ability is the root that will bring about success in the path, it is extremely important to make a careful investigation of the spiritual master before we entrust and commit ourselves to him or her. 

Such an investigation and analysis is not like giving someone a medical examination in a Western hospital.  It is not a physical examination. What we are checking up on is whether or not this person has the three higher trainings: in ethical self-discipline, absorbed concentration and discriminating awareness (wisdom). Does this person have a warm, kind heart? Does this person have great wisdom and discrimination? These are the things we need to investigate. And if that person does have such qualities, then it is proper to entrust and commit ourselves wholeheartedly to him or her. 

But this type of investigation is not something that we need to do after we have committed ourselves to a spiritual master. We need to do it beforehand. If we’re not careful once we have committed ourselves to a spiritual master and we turn away from that commitment and lose all trust, the consequences can be very dire and disastrous for us. For example, if, during this lifetime, we have committed an extremely destructive act, let’s say one of the heinous crimes, if we openly and honestly admit to having done wrong and apply all the appropriate opponent forces, it is possible to purify ourselves of that negative potential we have built up. On that basis, we may achieve enlightenment within this very lifetime. But if, having committed ourselves wholeheartedly to a spiritual master, we then turn our backs on our commitment, sever the relationship and lose all trust, there is the great danger that we will not be able to become enlightened within our lifetime. 

How do we commit ourselves? We commit ourselves both with our thoughts and our actions. The way to commit ourselves with our thoughts is to develop the so-called “root” of the commitment, namely belief in a fact to be true. There are three different ways of believing a fact to be true: clearheadly believing it, believing it with an aspiration concerning it, and believing it based on reason. Regardless of which type we are capable of, we need to develop respectful belief and confidence in the fact that our spiritual master definitely is a totally enlightened Buddha. 

Various benefits follow from having such a wholehearted commitment with our thoughts and many disadvantages and disasters that follow from breaking that commitment. These are very extensive topics that are too detailed for me to go into here. But you have your teachers here with whom you can study these things. You need to study them carefully, as they are extremely important. 

As for the way to commit ourselves with our actions, although there are many ways, the main point is to follow the teachings and instructions exactly as our spiritual master tells us. Within that context, the main thing is to keep the strict ethical self-discipline of avoiding all the ten destructive actions (nonvirtuous actions) and conducting ourselves properly. This is the best way to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to our spiritual master by means of our actions. 

Going back to how we commit ourselves with our thoughts, we not only need to develop, as our root, belief in facts to be true, we also need to develop great respect by being continually mindful of the kindness of our spiritual master. So, it is very important to remember his or her kindness. 

As was explained, the Buddha Shakyamuni, through his unimaginably great enlightening deeds, was able to ripen the mind-streams of numerous disciples. But we were not able to take birth at that time, and so we were unable to have met with this supreme emanation, the Buddha Shakyamuni. Even if an enlightened being were to appear today with all the thirty-two major and eighty minor physical features, we may not have built up the positive potential or karma to be able to meet with such a being. What we do have, however, is the ability to meet with spiritual masters who can teach us in forms that suit our abilities and needs. Therefore, in such a pathetic situation, our spiritual master is extremely kind to teach us. 

Since we all want to be happy and not to have any problems or sufferings, we need to build up the causes that will result in our happiness. The spiritual master indicates the various preventive measures to take, in a graduated order, which will allow us to accomplish this. He or she teaches these various methods in a manner in which we do not have to undergo unbelievably great hardships and difficulties. If we put all these methods into practice, then eventually we will be able to gain actual meditation experiences and realizations. On that basis, we actually will be able to meet with a Buddha and be able to receive teachings and practice accordingly. This is something that happens at a point when we have already achieved a rather high level of realization. But now at this point, when we are in a much more pathetic condition, we have the manifestations of Buddhas as spiritual masters in forms more suited to us and which we can relate to. 

If we think about these points, we will realize how kind our spiritual master is. Consider what it would be like to be in a situation in which we were very desperate and in need of help. For instance, if we had no food and were about to starve to death, or if we had no clothes and it was freezing cold and we were about to freeze to death.  Someone who gives us food and clothing at that time would be extremely kind. But if we are in a situation in which we have become very wealthy, having a great deal of material possessions, a good education, and have many skills and qualities, then at such a time for someone to give us something to eat and something to wear is not such a great deed. It is not such a great kindness to us. 

So, if we ask what is the real reason we need to be able to recognize that our spiritual master is in fact a fully enlightened Buddha and if we ask why we need to have a full commitment in our actions and in our thoughts, this is why: The basic reason, the essential point, is that we need to be able to achieve a state of enlightenment through what this person is teaching us. Therefore, if we think about it, the spiritual master teaches us all the graded paths of mind and practices that will bring us to a state of enlightenment. This is the enlightening activity of a Buddha and therefore our spiritual master is a Buddha from the point of view of his or her enacting the enlightening activity of a Buddha, This is the great kindness of our spiritual master that we need to remember and fully appreciate.  

There’s a great deal of talk about guru-yoga, practices to integrate ourselves with the spiritual master. This is a very important practice that is found in all four traditions of Buddhism in Tibet. There is nothing disharmonious in any of them; they all are in total agreement about the wholehearted, healthy commitment to a spiritual master. 

So the first verse of the text then is:

(1) (Healthy) reliance on a kind spiritual master,
The foundation for all good qualities,
   is the root of the path.

Seeing this well, I request inspiration to rely
With great appreciation, through many endeavors. 

This verse covers the subject matter of a wholehearted commitment to a spiritual master or so-called “guru- devotion.” It is important at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the path.  At the beginning, it is the most essential thing that will act as the launching point for our practice. During the course of our practice, it is the root for being able to gain all good qualities. In the end, our attainment of the completion of all these paths of the mind likewise depends on our wholehearted commitment to our spiritual master. Thus, a healthy, proper commitment is essential throughout the entire process for achieving enlightenment. 

No matter what type of mundane worldly things we might be involved with or might wish to do, we need somebody qualified to show us how to do them. If this is so, then for achieving a state that is beyond all mundane perishable things, it is even more necessary to have a spiritual master – a qualified spiritual mentor and friend to show us the way to do this. Thus, it is important to entrust and commit ourselves wholeheartedly to such a person and not break that commitment or turn back from it. Thus, this first stanza of the text discusses an extremely crucial and important topic that is the crux for our success in the entire practice. 

The Working Basis: A Precious Human Rebirth

Having a healthy, wholehearted commitment as the basis and then continuing with the actual paths of the mind, the next topic is appreciating the excellent working basis that we have – a precious human rebirth fully endowed with all the respites and enrichments for Dharma practice, and how difficult it is to obtain one, and so on. The next four-lined verse presents that subject matter:

(2) This excellent working basis with its respites,
   found but once,

Is difficult to obtain.
   Having realized its great importance,

I request inspiration to develop without disruption
An attitude to take its essence in all ways,
   day and night.
 

There are a great many human beings and many different types of people. The particular type of working basis that we have, as fully endowed human beings, is something that is even greater than the working basis of just being a regular human. In fact, having a human body at all is not something that is under our control. At the time of death, we will lose such a body and there is no way of telling where or as what we are going to be reborn. So, in general, it is very difficult to obtain any type of human body. 

If we ask why it is so difficult to achieve a human body, the reason is that we have to build up the causes for such a rebirth. The main cause is having built up a great bountiful store or network of positive potential from having followed strict ethics. If we look around at all those who are involved in being constructive and positive, as opposed to all those who are involved in being negative and destructive, we can easily see for ourselves which side has the most people on it. Also, if we fly around the world in an airplane and look below, it becomes quite obvious that the majority of the earth is ocean. These oceans are filled with various types of ocean life, none of which have a human body. And if we look at all the various countries on land and all the people in those countries, and if we try to look for those who take interest in benefiting their future lives and beyond, such persons are extremely rare. This is something we can all see for ourselves; it is quite obvious. Just take this country itself as an example. There are very few people in this country who are sincerely interested in benefiting their future lives and in doing a spiritual practice of taking the preventive measures of Dharma in order to bring about future human rebirths. This is something that we can plainly see. 

Therefore, to be reborn as a human being who takes an interest in spiritual matters and improving future lives is something that is extremely rare and difficult to come by. The fact that we have been reborn as such fully endowed human beings, then, is something so precious and rare and so difficult to attain. We should feel great happiness about it. 

The reason for feeling happy about such a precious human rebirth is that it is extremely important: many things can be accomplished on its basis. There are those who use their human lives to try to gain a great deal of wealth, material possessions and money for this lifetime. To spend their lives in that way cannot be considered a very important use of their opportunities. Thus, if we put all our energies into merely procuring things to eat and providing for our material needs, this is something that animals do as well. It makes us no different or any better than they are. Even the most insignificant type of animal, like a little mouse, is quite capable of finding food for itself. 

What is something greater that we can accomplish on the basis of our precious human rebirth? We can take the various preventive measures of Dharma that will allow us not to have to fall into any of the worse states of rebirth in our future lives. This is something that in fact we can do; it is a use that we can make of this working basis of the precious human rebirth that we have. Furthermore, it is possible on the basis of this precious human body to rid ourselves of all types of uncontrollably recurring sufferings. This, as well, is something that we can accomplish on the basis of our precious human rebirth. Not only can we eliminate all our own problems and sufferings, it is quite possible for us to achieve the ability to relieve everyone else’s problems and suffering too. We can achieve a totally clear-minded and fully evolved state of an enlightened Buddha on the basis of our precious human rebirth. This is something we can do as well. 

The main point to keep in mind here is having the ability to benefit all beings and to achieve a state of enlightenment that enables us to be able to do so as much as is possible. Within that context, we need to think of the points in the teachings concerning our precious human rebirth, death and impermanence. We need to employ the various Dharma methods to ensure that we are not reborn in one of the worse states. 

When we are making a painting of a Buddha, from the very beginning we have the full picture of a Buddha in mind. In the same way with these Dharma trainings, we keep in mind, from the very start, the ultimate goal of achieving a state of enlightenment to be able to benefit all beings. We then go through all the trainings, from the beginning, with that awareness. 

We have both the day and the night at our disposal and we need to use both of them to put all our efforts into taking advantage of the essence of our precious human life. What is the essence of life? The essential point of being alive is that we can achieve a fully enlightened state of a Buddha to be able to benefit everyone. This is the most essential point of being alive as a fully endowed human being. This is something that we need to try to keep in mind at all times and never lose our awareness of it. 

We should feel extremely happy at being alive as a human being with all the respites and enrichments enabling our Dharma practice for achieving enlightenment. Then, within that state of happiness over the opportunities we have, we need to try to have a warm and kind heart. We can develop a heart that is dedicated to others and to achieving enlightenment. We can put all our efforts into trying to be of help and benefit to everyone, and into never hurting anyone. 

Summary

Today I’ve discussed the root of all the paths of the mind, which is a wholehearted commitment to a spiritual master. I’ve also discussed the difficulty of finding a precious human rebirth with all its respites and enrichments for making progress. I’ve given this explanation in terms of a brief preliminary introduction, the actual main body, and a dedication-type of review at the end. 

As for what can be accomplished with this human basis that we have, there are both provisional and ultimate goals that we can achieve. On a provisional or superficial level, it is possible to be reborn as a human being again with great opportunities, and also to be reborn as a god. Further, on an ultimate level, it is possible to achieve a state of either liberation or enlightenment also on the basis of our precious human life. So, from both provisional and ultimate points of view, having a precious human life is extremely crucial. It is important, then, to meditate on all these points and build up awareness and appreciation of them as beneficial habits of mind.