The lamrim, the gradual path to enlightenment, gives a concise and comprehensive picture of the Buddhist path to awakening. This outline of the lamrim meditations is intended to be used to supplement the audio recordings on Guided Meditations on the Stages of the Path. The outline can also be used on its own as a study guide.
There are two principal forms of meditation: stabilizing (single-pointed) and checking (analytical). The former is done to develop single-pointed concentration and the latter to develop understanding and insight. When meditating on the gradual path to enlightenment, we first do checking meditation. Here, we investigate a topic taught by the Buddha in order to understand it deeply. We think about the topic logically and relate it to our personal experience by making examples from our life. When we have a deep feeling or strong experience of the meaning of that meditation, we focus on just that experience with stabilizing meditation, concentrating on it single-pointedly so that it becomes part of us.
For an expanded explanation of how to do checking meditation and its role in our overall practice, see Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage, by Geshe Jampa Tegchok.
Main points of this outline:
- Introduction to the Buddhist view
- The path in common with the initial level practitioner (page 2, see below)
- The path of the middle level practitioner (page 3, see below)
- The path of the higher level practitioner (pages 4 and 5, see below)
- How to rely on a spiritual mentor (page 6, see below)
Introduction to the Buddhist view
Since most Westerners have not been raised Buddhist and have not lived in a Buddhist culture, some initial reflections on basic Buddhist approaches are helpful. The first three meditations help us understand how our mind operates in daily life and how our mental processes—our thoughts and feelings—influence our experiences.
Mind is the source of happiness and pain
- Remember a disturbing situation in your life. Recall what you were thinking and feeling (not what the other person was saying and doing). How did the way you described the situation to yourself influence how you experienced it?
- Examine how your attitude affected what you said and did in the situation. How did your words and actions affect the situation? How did the other person respond to what you said and did?
- Was your view of the situation realistic? Were you seeing all sides of the situation or were you seeing things through the eyes of “me, I, my, and mine?”
- Think of how you could have viewed the situation differently if you had had a broad mind and been free from self-centeredness. How would that have changed your experience of it?
Conclusion: Determine to be aware of how you interpret events and to cultivate beneficial and realistic ways of looking at them.
Taking the ache out of attachment
Based on a superimposition or exaggeration of the positive qualities of a person, object, idea, etc., attachment is an attitude that clings to an object as the source of happiness. Attachment differs from positive aspiration. For example, being attached to money is different from having a positive aspiration to learn the Dharma. Reflect:
- What things, people, places, ideas, etc. are you attached to? Make specific examples.
- How does that person or thing appear to you? Does it really have all the qualities you perceive and attribute to it?
- Do you develop unreal expectations of the person or thing, thinking that it will always be there, will continuously make you happy, etc.?
- How does your attachment make you act? For example, do you disregard your ethical standards to get what you’re attached to? Do you get into dysfunctional relationships? Do you become manipulative or aggressive?
Conclusion: See attachment not as your friend bringing you happiness, but as a thief destroying your peace of mind. Recognizing the disadvantages of attachment helps to let go of it.
Thinking of the object of your attachment, apply an antidote to attachment. Each of the four points below is a separate antidote. You can use an example from your life for each point.
- If you possess this thing, person, etc. or if you get your way, will it bring lasting happiness and satisfaction? What new problems could arise? Does it or any external person or thing have the ability to bring you lasting happiness?
- If you separate from this, what is the worst thing that could happen? Is that likely to happen? What resources—internal and in the community—can help you deal with the situation?
- Look back at the thing, person, etc. that you are now separated from and rejoice at the time you had together. Go into the future with optimism.
- Imagine giving the thing or person to someone else who receives it with joy. With a joyful mind, imagine offering the thing or person to the Buddha.
Conclusion: Feel balanced and free to enjoy without clinging.
Having observed how our mind operates in daily life, let’s look at the mind itself—its nature and its continuity from life to life.
The nature of mind
The word “mind” does not refer to the brain, for the brain is made of atoms while the mind is not. The mind is that part of us that experiences, feels, perceives, thinks, and so forth. The presence of the mind is what makes the difference between a living being and a dead body. The mind has two qualities:
- Clarity: it is formless and allows objects to arise in it.
- Awareness: it can engage with objects.
Calm your mind by observing the breath, and then turn your attention to the mind itself, to what is meditating, experiencing, feeling, that is, to the subject, not object of the meditation. Observe:
- What is your mind? Does it have shape or color? Where is it? Can you find your mind somewhere?
- Try to get a sense of the clarity and awareness of what is perceiving, feeling, and experiencing. Focus on the perceiving subject, not on the object of the perception.
- If thoughts arise, observe: What are thoughts? Where do they come from? Where are they? Where do they disappear to?
Conclusion: Experience your mind as being clarity and awareness, free from thought.
Mind and rebirth
We are not isolated, independent individuals, but part of a continuity. We have existed in the past and will exist in the future, even though we are not static individuals.
- Are you the same person that was an infant and that will be an aged person, or are you in a state of constant flux? Recognize that your body and mind have changed from conception to the present and that they will continue to change in the future. In this way, loosen the concept that views yourself as permanent and the concept that identifies “I” with the present body and mind.
- The body is material in nature. The mind is formless; it is clear and knowing. Thus the continuities of body and mind are different. Look at the qualities of your body and mind and see how they are different.
- Rebirth can be explained in terms of cause and effect. Each moment of mind has a cause: the preceding moment of mind. Get a sense of the continuity of mind by going back in your life, noting that each moment of mind arose from the previous moment. When you get to the time of conception, ask, “Where did this moment of mind come from?”
Some other ways for getting a sense of rebirth are to:
- Contemplate the stories of people who remember previous lives.
- Try on accepting rebirth. What other things could it help to explain, for example, deja vu experiences, the differing personalities of children within the same family, and familiarity with certain skills or subjects?
- Since your body—the life form you are born into—is a reflection of your mental states, think of how it is possible to be born in other bodies. For example, a human being who acts worse than an animal could be reborn as an animal.
Conclusion: Feel that you are not simply this present person, but instead exist in a continuum that spans more than just this life.
The mind is clarity and awareness. It has a continuity that is beginningless and endless, taking rebirth in one body after another. The four noble truths describe the unsatisfactory situation of uncontrolled rebirth in which we are presently caught, as well as our potential for liberation and happiness.
The four noble truths
The first two of the four noble truths outline our present situation and its causes; the last two present our potential and the path to actualize it.
- It is true that we experience unsatisfactory conditions, suffering, difficulties, and problems. Suffering is to be recognized. What difficulties, both physical and mental, do you have in your life? See them as part of the human experience, as arising simply because you have the body and mind that you do.
- It is true that these unsatisfactory experiences have causes: ignorance, attachment, anger, and other disturbing attitudes, as well as the actions (karma) we do under their influence. These causes of our unsatisfactory situation are to be abandoned.
Conclusion: See how your negative emotions cause you suffering. Reflect that they distort your perception of an object and cause you to act in ways that bring suffering to yourself and to others.
- It is true that the possibility to completely cease these unsatisfactory conditions and their causes exists. These cessations are to be actualized. Reflect that it is possible to be free from these. What would it feel like not to be under the influence of disturbing attitudes, negative emotions, and the actions motivated by them?
- It is true that there is a path to bring about this liberation. The path is to be practiced.
Conclusion: True cessations and true paths are the Dharma refuge. Make a determination to abandon any chaotic or misinformed ways that falsely promise happiness and to follow the paths of ethics, concentration, wisdom, as well as to generate love, compassion, and bodhicitta.
The three characteristics
Contemplating the three characteristics of all things in cyclic existence helps us to better understand our present situation and potential. All people and things in cyclic existence have three characteristics:
- Transience. By looking at your life, reflect:
- Everything in our world—people, objects, reputation, etc.—is transient and changeable by its very nature.
- Our refusal to accept this reality causes us pain.
- In your heart, try to accept the transient nature of all things.
- Unsatisfactory conditions. Not everything is 100 percent wonderful in our lives. We experience:
- Unsatisfactory situations of pain and suffering, both physical and mental.
- Happy situations that are unsatisfactory because they are actually no more than a temporary alleviation of suffering. In addition, they change and disappear.
- The unsatisfactory situation of having a body that ages, gets sick, and dies, and a mind that is under the control of disturbing attitudes and karma.
Reflect on transience and unsatisfactory conditions, and then remember your potential. Make a determination to let go of the clinging and ignorance that keep you bound to unsatisfactory situations.
- Selflessness. Reflect that all these seemingly solid and independent things—ourselves and other phenomena—are without inherent, findable existence. Understanding this counteracts ignorance, thus eliminating the root cause of all the unsatisfactory experiences of cyclic existence.
Having a general idea of the Buddhist approach, let’s now begin the meditations of the three levels of practitioners: initial, middle, and advanced.