Explanation of Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment
Session Four: The Trainings in Higher Ethical Discipline and Higher Concentration
In our discussion last time, we completed the presentation that Atisha gave for taking the bodhisattva vows. Once we take the bodhisattva vows, which are the essence of developing this engaged level of bodhichitta, then we need to actually practice what’s called “enlightening conduct,” bodhisattva conduct. And this is actually what bodhisattva vows shape; they shape that type of conduct. They shape the actions of our body, speech, and mind so that we don’t act in such a way that’s going to prevent us from helping others.
We can discuss this bodhisattva conduct or bodhisattva behavior in several ways. Atisha presents it in terms of what’s called “the three higher trainings.” These are the training in higher ethical discipline, higher concentration, and higher discriminating awareness or wisdom.
The first of these is the training in higher ethical discipline. It’s not just the discipline to stand on one foot, but it’s discipline regarding our ethical behavior.
In the standard lam-rims that follow, we have the presentation of these three higher trainings as a practice which is in common for both the intermediate scope and the advanced scope, because for gaining liberation or enlightenment, for either one of them, we have to practice these three. The difference between the two levels of practice of the three is in terms of the motivation or aim: whether one is practicing them with the aim to achieve liberation for oneself alone or whether one is practicing them in order to reach enlightenment to benefit all others.
Verse thirty-two starts the discussion of higher ethical discipline. And we need to understand Atisha’s presentation of these three higher trainings in terms of approaching them with bodhichitta motivation. So, we can understand this verse on ethical discipline in this context.
By living in accord with the vows
that are the very nature of engaged bodhichitta
And which are a cause for purifying completely
your body, speech, and mind,
Your respect for the three trainings in ethical discipline will increase.
There are three aspects of ethical self-discipline – we’re talking about discipline of ourselves, not the ethical discipline of trying to discipline somebody else – and these are discussed specifically in the teachings for a bodhisattva in terms of the far-reaching attitudes or the perfections. So, we have (1) the ethical discipline to restrain from destructive behavior, which means keeping the vows. And here the emphasis is on keeping the bodhisattva vows, but as Atisha emphasizes, the basis for that is keeping some level of the pratimoksha vows.
One of the reasons why Atisha puts so much emphasis on the pratimoksha vows, I think, is because of the circumstance that was occurring in Tibet which prompted his invitation. Remember, at that time there was a great deal of misunderstanding about Buddhism, particularly about tantra. Many things in the tantra teachings were taken in a very literal fashion and then led to a great deal of abuse; and this was particularly in the realm of killing and inappropriate sexual behavior.
There’s a discussion of liberating the consciousness to a higher realm and many people misunderstood that to allow for basically killing people in the name of helping them from a religious point of view. You take their life and in this way you send them to a higher rebirth, but this was really just greatly abused. Likewise, people were indulging in ritual sexual behavior, thinking that this was what tantra practice was calling for, and the original tantra teachings were never to be taken so literally as this.
And because the king of western Tibet invited Atisha specifically to clarify these things, therefore Atisha put such an emphasis here on keeping the vows of individual liberation, not killing and particularly the vows of abstinence, that it’s best not to engage in any sexual behavior at all and that this is a proper basis for bodhisattva conduct. So I think that his emphasis on this in the text needs to be understood in the historical context with which he wrote this.
But just because he emphasized this doesn’t mean that his advice is limited to that historical period. It’s something which is valid advice in all situations. In our present day, where there is likewise a lot of misunderstanding about tantra, particularly concerning the sexual aspects of it, then I think that it’s extremely relevant today as well. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to become a monk and a nun in order to practice tantra; what’s important is to avoid the extreme of taking things in the tantra teachings literally.
The “three trainings in higher ethical discipline” is to refrain from negative behavior, which means keeping the vows, and then (2) the discipline of engaging in constructive behavior, which means specifically meditating and practicing the various teachings, and then the third ethical discipline is the discipline involved in actually helping others.
Atisha says that by “training in these three,” which means “by living in accord with the bodhisattva vows,” and “these are a cause for purifying negativities of our body, speech, and mind,” so we don’t act in negative ways, that then, by living in this manner, our appreciation for the value of this ethical training will grow and grow. “Respect” here implies that we understand completely the benefits of ethical discipline, we appreciate that, we are confident it has these benefits, and we appreciate how it helps us to be able to benefit others.
In this way we take this ethical discipline very seriously, which obviously at those times people were not doing.
full state of enlightenment;
For, by exerting yourself in the vows of the bodhisattva vows,
You will fully complete the networks needed
For total enlightenment.
By keeping the bodhisattva vows very strictly and following the other types of ethical discipline, then we are able to strengthen and “complete building up the two enlightenment-building networks.” These are the networks that we spoke of yesterday: the network of positive force from actually helping others, meditating, and so on, and the network of deep awareness, deep awareness of voidness. These are usually called “the two collections, collections of merit and wisdom.”
The bodhisattva vows, particularly in the set of the secondary vows, it is speaking about the various damaging actions that would prevent us from really practicing the six far-reaching attitudes and from helping others. If we avoid things that would damage our discipline and would damage our concentration, that would damage our development of deep awareness of voidness, that would damage our actual helping others in different situations. Then obviously we will be able to build up and strengthen these enlightenment-building networks, complete them, so that we can achieve enlightenment.
So putting great effort in keeping these bodhisattva vows is essential for reaching enlightenment. And he’s saying indirectly here that keeping the bodhisattva vows are absolutely essential for reaching enlightenment, whether we follow the sutra path of Mahayana, or the tantra path of Mahayana. There are, again, some people who think that you can practice tantra without, not only without the pratimoksha vows, the vows for individual liberation, but even without the bodhisattva vows and Atisha is asserting that that’s not the case.
Having the nature of positive force and deep awareness,
All the Buddhas have asserted that it is
The development of advanced awareness.
Here he’s saying that to be able “to complete these networks,” which are the two networks, as he said, of positive force and deep awareness, we need to develop what is called “advanced awareness,” which comes from perfecting higher concentration. So ethical discipline is not enough, we also need concentration. Now, a byproduct of gaining perfect concentration is gaining five types of advanced awareness, sometimes they’re referred to as ESP, extrasensory perception, but that’s just part of it – there are five of these.
The first is extraphysical abilities – to be able to run very, very quickly, fly through the air, walk on water, these sort of extraphysical abilities. The second one is extrasensory sight, being able to see very far distances that we couldn’t normally see. (3) Extrasensory hearing, being able to hear things far away that normally we couldn’t hear. And then (4) knowing other people’s and one’s own past lives. And fifth is knowing others’ thoughts.
These are not exclusive to Buddhism. Anybody following a non-Buddhist path as well, if they gain perfect concentration, will gain these abilities as a byproduct. In other words, there’s a tremendous amount of information and if we are concentrated enough, we can become sensitive enough to be able to read that information and to know these various things. Therefore, it’s advanced awareness.
Here Atisha is saying that the Buddhas have emphasized that this advanced awareness is very important for being able to complete these two networks. How do we understand that? The point is that we’re not talking about gaining these five in any context; we’re talking about gaining these five in the context of bodhichitta motivation. In other words, we want to use these five to benefit others. To build up the network and strengthen the network of positive force, that means building up positive force from actually helping others.
So, if we can see very, very far away when people are in trouble and need help, or we can hear what’s going on very far away, that enables us to be able to help far more people than if our senses are limited to just being able to perceive what’s in the room. And in going to help others, if we can get there very, very quickly with these extraphysical powers and even fly from one mountaintop to another mountaintop, so you don’t have to go all the way down the valley and all the way back up, and we can walk across very fast streams, which would be very difficult to cross and so on, this would enable us to get there much more quickly and help others.
Likewise, if we can see through walls and all these sort of things, we can also be of more help. And similarly, if people are acting in certain ways that are causing problems, if we can understand their past lives, we also are able to understand some of the reasons why they’re acting in a certain way and it gives us a much better indication of how to help them. And particularly when people are uncommunicative, it’s very important to be able to read their thoughts to know what’s going on, again, in order to be able to teach them properly, help them properly.
Although the description of these five types of advanced awareness perhaps reminds us of a bodhisattva being a little bit like Superman or Superwoman – seeing something far away, “There’s trouble!” and then they fly through the air to get there to help them – this is not really a fiction. I’ve lived among the greatest Tibetan masters long enough to have personally witnessed examples of – I haven’t seen somebody fly through the air, but – of this type of advanced awareness.
With my own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, with whom I spent nine years living very closely, for example, we were going once to a Buddhist center in Dharamsala and we were in the car on the way there and, as we approached the center, Rinpoche told the people, “Run quickly into the gonpa,” into the temple, “because a candle has fallen over and a fire is starting,” which obviously he couldn’t see from the car way down the road. And of course the people ran and it was absolutely true that a candle had fallen and the curtain was on fire.
Translator: The people that were in the car...?
Translator: He told them to run...?
Answer: “Go quickly and run inside because there’s a fire starting!”
So, I’ve seen examples like this. Or in terms of past lives, he wouldn’t speak in terms of specific information about past lives, but he would know, “This person I have the karmic connection from previous lives to be able to help.” And sometimes people would come to him with a problem and he would say, “I don’t have the karmic connection with you to be able to help you, but this other lama does for this specific problem,” and he would send this person to somebody else who in fact was able to help them.
And although I never saw Rinpoche flying or anything like that – he was a very fat, heavy old man and when he was sitting on a cushion on the ground he needed help to get up – once I was with him, we were sitting next to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the wind had blown some pages of the text His Holiness was reading on the floor and Rinpoche jumped up much quicker than I could have jumped up and got the pages and handed them to His Holiness. So obviously he was able to do many things that ordinarily with that type of body one would not be able to do.
With these different types of advanced awareness and abilities, we’re able to help others much, much more. So this builds up a tremendous amount of positive force, helps to complete that network, and as a result of that strong positive force, that allows us to be able to build up the network of deep awareness of voidness, because without that strong positive force we’re not able to really understand. Atisha goes on to emphasize this with quite a few verses that follow and I think he’s trying to make a point to his audience that if they really want to help others they need to practice meditation very seriously and gain perfect concentration.
Also I think that the context of where he was teaching also plays a role in his emphasis here, because he’s emphasizing these advanced awarenesses in the context of the bodhisattva conduct and building up the two networks. At this time in Tibet there was a lot of practice of magic, black magic and so on. So obviously people had various powers, but they weren’t using it for great benefit, they were using it for harming others. And since people were already quite familiar with these type of powers and so on, Atisha was emphasizing that the importance of them is to use them to benefit others and reach enlightenment.
So I think that helps to explain a little bit why Atisha put so much emphasis on this and we don’t really find that type of emphasis in other texts. We just need to think of the biography of Milarepa, who lived shortly after Atisha, to appreciate a little bit the cultural atmosphere in Tibet that Atisha was encountering and the skillful method for being able to teach others in a way that brings in something which is very familiar with their experience and show how it can be used on the path.
We can think of a similar type of situation nowadays, not so much with advanced awareness and magic, but in terms of technology. Rather than using technology for destructive purposes, we can use it for beneficial ones with the bodhisattva motivation. We have our own types of advanced awareness, because of the technology that allows us to see things that we ordinarily couldn’t see, or hear things we couldn’t ordinarily hear. So this has a relevance, even if we don’t have any experience or witnessing of these specific types of advanced awareness that come from concentration.
I’ll just read the next three verses, because they just emphasize the importance of this advanced awareness for being able to help others.
Cannot fly in the sky,
Likewise lacking the force of advanced awareness,
You will be unable to fulfill the aims of limited beings.
By someone possessing advanced awareness
Is not had even in a hundred lifetimes
By someone lacking advanced awareness.
Quickly, the networks for total enlightenment,
Make effort and thereby come to attain
Advanced awareness. It is not to be had by the lazy.
Atisha goes on:
Will not attain advanced awareness.
Therefore, repeatedly exert effort
To actualize a stilled settled mind.
“A stilled settled mind” is referring to what’s called in Sanskrit shamatha, or in Tibetan zhinay (zhi-gnas), sometimes translated as “calm abiding” or “mental quiescence.” This state of mind is one which is one step beyond having a perfect single-minded concentration:
Not only is the mind stilled of all mental wandering or dullness and not only is it settled single-pointedly on some constructive object – which is literally what zhi and nay (gnas) mean of the word zhinay, Tibetan for shamatha – but in addition to this perfect concentration that’s stilled and settled, there is an exhilarating sensation, an exhilarating state of mind that is fit for being able to concentrate on anything. So, there’s this feeling of exhilaration, of fitness, in addition to the perfect concentration – that’s zhinay or shamatha, that’s the stilled settled mind.
The advanced awarenesses come as a byproduct of the attainment of that stilled settled mind, so it’s not that you can get it by any other means. It’s by gaining this stilled settled mind, then automatically your mind is so concentrated, so focused, and it’s so fit, it’s so exhilaratingly fit to concentrate that it is able to perceive all these things, like far distant sights and sounds and karmic connections and so on, that normally we would never be able to perceive.
Then even if you have meditated with great effort
And even if for thousands of years,
You will not attain single-minded concentration.
In order to attain this stilled and settled state of mind, you need various factors, which are going to support that meditation practice, to achieve this. Without the support of those factors it will be impossible to gain single-minded concentration. What are these factors?
In the chapter on A Network for Single-Minded Concentration.
Then place your mind on something constructive,
Namely one of the appropriate objects of focus.
There are generally six conditions that are conducive for achieving this stilled settled mind.
The first is being in a conducive place. A conducive place is where food and water are easily obtainable – we’re talking about the place where you do retreat to achieve single-minded concentration. It needs to have an excellent spiritual situation, in other words, it’s been approved and sanctified by our own spiritual teacher or previous masters who have meditated there.
It has to have an excellent geographic situation, so it’s secluded, quiet, distant from people who upset us; it has a long distance view; it doesn’t have the sound of running water or the ocean nearby. If there’s water running, some people think, “Oh, it’s so nice to have a fast-moving stream of water next to where we’re meditating,” but that tends to mesmerize you, it tends to hypnotize you, puts you into a daze, so it’s not at all conducive for having a clear mind and concentration. The same thing with the sound of the ocean. It should be very quiet, without such things. And it needs to have a good climate. All of that is the geographic situation.
The place should also have the excellent company of friends who are similarly engaged, that are either practicing with us or living nearby. Also it says we need to have “the items that are required for making a happy bond with the practice.” In other words, we have texts and things there that give us the correct information about the practice. And we’ve studied them and we’ve understood them, but they’re there for reference, in case we have further questions. But it’s very important before we practice to have cleared up our questions.
So, all of those are the first of the six conditions, a conducive place. The second thing is that we need to have very little attachment. The biggest distraction is attachment to people, to friends, to loved ones, to food, to clothing, attachment to receiving affection, attachment to comfort, attachment to sleep – these sort of things. You have to have very little of that, otherwise it’s very difficult to achieve concentration.
Then the third thing is we need contentment – contentment with the food, clothing, weather conditions, and so on that we have. Then we have to (4) be rid of the busywork of having many distracting activities, like e-mail and carrying on business and worldly affairs and elaborate cooking and all of that. Alright? No cell phones while you’re in retreat and no television either.
Then the fifth one is pure ethical self-discipline. And the last one is being rid of obsessive, prejudiced thoughts about what we usually consider desirable to do, thoughts like, “I’m somebody that has to listen to music all the time,” or “I have to always consult my astrology chart,” or these sort of things. “I have to read a novel before I go to sleep,” or listening to music, “I have to have music, I have to have my music.”
So, we need these factors that are going to give us the conducive circumstance for gaining a stilled and settled mind. Without them, as Atisha says, “even if we’ve meditated for thousands of years, we’re not going to gain single-minded concentration.”
When we meditate, Atisha says, “place the mind on something constructive, namely one appropriate object of focus.” In other words, we choose one object and don’t change objects. And when he says “something constructive,” he’s not talking about something neutral like the breath. Although we could gain single-minded concentration on the breath, but as a bodhisattva practice one would choose something constructive, like for instance the visualization of a Buddha image.
Because if we are focusing on a Buddha, then this represents the enlightened stage that we’re aiming to achieve with bodhichitta, and so it helps us very much – at the same time as gaining concentration – to reinforce our safe direction toward Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and our bodhichitta, so it’s a very constructive object to focus on. And we want to be able to develop single-minded concentration and stilled and settled mind with mental consciousness, not with sense consciousness, because we want to then apply that mental consciousness with perfect concentration to the understanding of voidness.
(41a) When a yogi actualizes a stilled settled mind,
He or she attains as well advanced awareness.
That just sums up: when we gain that shamatha state, then we gain these advanced awarenesses.
Let’s take our tea break and then we’ll continue with his discussion of the training in higher discriminating awareness or wisdom.
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