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Qualities of the Three Jewels

Taking refuge: Part 5 of 10

Part of a series of teachings based on the The Gradual Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim) given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington, from 1991-1994.

Qualities and skills of a Buddha’s enlightening influence

  • Difference in sutra and tantra
  • Enlightening influence is effortless and uninterrupted

LR 025: Refuge (download)

The good qualities of the Dharma

LR 025: Qualities of Dharma (download)

The good qualities of the Sangha

  • The three vehicles
  • The five paths

LR 025: Qualities of Sangha (download)

The Bodhisattva Vehicle

  • The ten grounds
  • Qualities of bodhisattvas

LR 025: Bodhisattva vehicle (download)

Questions and answers

LR 025: Refuge Q&A (download)

Qualities and skills of a Buddha’s enlightening influence

We have finished talking about the Buddha’s qualities of body, speech and mind during our last session. Now we are going to talk about the qualities of the Buddha’s enlightening influence. We are basically discussing sutra teachings, but when teachers correlate these things to the tantra, they talk about the Buddha’s qualities manifesting as specific deities. The Buddha’s wisdom manifests as Manjushri. The Buddha’s compassion manifests as Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara. Vajrapani is the manifestation of the Buddha’s skillful means, while Tara, the female Buddha, is very much the manifestation of the Buddha’s enlightening influence. Tara is green, like Seattle is going to be in a few months, when everything grows; so this is also the function of the Buddha’s enlightening influence—to make things grow in the minds of sentient beings.

There are two basic qualities of the Buddha’s enlightening influence. First of all it’s effortless and second it’s uninterrupted.

The Buddha’s enlightening influence is effortless

In terms of it being effortless, the Buddha doesn’t have to sit and think about everything and plan it out. He doesn’t have to sit and think, “Oh, it’s Monday morning. Who can I help? I think I will benefit the sentient being over there.” All this checking up and thinking about it doesn’t have to be done. Whether he wants to help this guy or not isn’t even a question in the Buddha’s mind. It just comes effortlessly, the desire and ability to benefit other beings. Also, a Buddha doesn’t need to think about how to help. A Buddha doesn’t think, “Well, do I teach this person refuge? Do I teach them the Mahayana path? Do I teach them devotional practices? What do I teach them?” They don’t scratch their head and go ’round and ’round in circles. They just know exactly what to teach each person that is going to be suitable for his or her mind. You’ll see that this quality keeps coming up over and over again as we are talking about the different qualities of the Buddha, the ability to teach others according to their own disposition, according to their own needs.

I think, then, in pointing out that the Buddhas have the ability to do this, it is also pointing out to us that we are all different, and that we don’t need to squeeze ourselves all to be the same. Also, when we are trying to help others we need to be sensitive to their different dispositions, inclinations and needs, and help people in ways that are appropriate for them. The Buddha doesn’t say, “I want to help you like this, therefore you better need this kind of help and you better receive it because I am giving it.” There isn’t this going on. [laughter] The Buddha just knows what others need and gives it in a very personalized, individual way.

I think there is something actually very profound about that as a lesson for us even at our own level of how we help people in what we do, because sometimes we just try to standardize everything too much. In the First grade you do this, in the Second grade you do this. Twelve-step program: first step, second step … even gradual path, it’s all standardized. But we are all individuals, aren’t we? We are all listening to it differently. We are all taking it in differently. We are going to pick out different points and put it into practice differently, so we need to be aware of that and appreciate that.

Also, I think (I know I am getting off on a tangent but anyhow) we don’t need to compare ourselves to other people. “What is everybody else saying? What is everybody else doing? How many prostrations have they done? Oh, they are doing mandala offerings and not prostrations. Maybe I should do mandala offerings just like them.” That’s not the issue. The issue is what are our own individual needs at a particular time and how are we going to get them filled in terms of the Dharma practice.

In many ways we have to learn to be our own doctors in our practice, to become sensitive to our own minds and to our own needs and which Dharma methods we may need at a particular moment. Which ones are going to help us? Going with that to some extent, being sensitive to what’s going on inside. When we are angry, we work with the anger. When we are attached, we work with the attachment. Pick out the different methods in the teachings that fit with what is going on in our lives at this particular moment.

That doesn’t mean that we have to jump around and play hopscotch everyday. We do our meditations on the gradual path, hopefully following the outline investigating a subject each day. You keep that cycle up; but at the same time whatever is an issue for you in your own life, you find the antidotes in the teachings and apply them to that. You can do this whether or not that is the subject that you are studying right then or whether or not that is your principal practice at that moment. For instance, you might be in the middle of doing a hundred thousand prostrations but you wake up one day and you are feeling completely miserly and you know you need to do offerings that day. You need to do something to overcome the miserliness. You might keep the prostrations up but for that day emphasize something else that helps you counteract what’s bugging you. It’s really about learning to be a doctor to our own mind.

Buddha is like a doctor, effortlessly, skillfully knowing what medicine to prescribe. We need to also do it too.

To get back on track: that was one quality of the Buddha’s mind, just the effortless flow of energy towards others without thinking, planning or whatever, somehow knowing exactly what to do. Whatever the Buddha does it meets the spot. It’s what that person needs at that particular moment. When you sit down and read the scriptures (especially the Pali cannon, the Theravada scriptures, which are included of course in the Tibetan cannon, the Mahayana cannon), these are very much stories about the Buddha’s life. They are the stories of how the Buddha lived and how he related to people. Sometimes in these stories, you may read about how somebody is doing something and the Buddha’s response to it and you go, “Why in the world is he doing that? What a weird thing to do,” and yet you can see that somehow he understands the people on a very deep level because it brings about a good result.

So it’s developing that sensitivity in ourselves to other people, to our own mind, and also realizing when we are reading the scriptures, that the Buddha did talk very individually to different people. He gave different teachings to different people. He gave different answers to the same question to different people, because people are different. What is skillful, what works, what is going to lead that person on the path to enlightenment is what is done at that moment and it’s done effortlessly.

The Buddha’s enlightening influence is uninterrupted

The second quality of the Buddha’s enlightening influence is that it is uninterrupted. The Buddha doesn’t get strung out, stressed out, exhausted and collapse, but rather a Buddha uninterruptedly is able to engage in all these kinds of activities. I used to see a lot of that with my own teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who (I am sure you have heard me say many times) doesn’t sleep at night. He goes into deep meditation for forty-five minutes and then wakes up and continues with his prayers. You can just see how he is acting continuously for the benefit of others. All of his attendants are totally wiped out, but Rinpoche is raring to go any time, day or night. This is the power of great compassion. As we develop the compassion in the mind more and more, things become more effortless. They become less choppy and much more continual. This is a nice quality of a Buddha’s actions. They are uninterrupted.

Last night while I was walking around the lake, I was thinking about how the analogy of the moon’s reflection in a pond is often used to explain the way in which the Buddha helps us. From the moon’s side, the moonlight is just shining equally everywhere and it is shining effortlessly on the pond. It is shining uninterruptedly on the pond (let’s pretend that the moon doesn’t set). Then, depending on the pond’s surface, different things get reflected. When speedboats go by on the pond you get a distorted reflection of the moon; if the pond is very still you get a clear reflection; and when there is lots of other light reflected then maybe you don’t notice the moon as much as if it were a completely dark night. This again is emphasizing how the Buddha and us interrelate. It’s not just from the Buddha coming down to us, but it’s also how we relate to the Buddha. The enlightening influence affects each of us in a unique way, according to where we are.

The enlightening influence of the Buddha’s body

The enlightening influence of the Buddha’s body is that there are countless emanations radiating through infinite space to benefit sentient beings. We are limited by this one body made of atoms that becomes a big drag because it gets old and sick and dies. When you become a Buddha, because you’ve eliminated the grasping and attachment, you no longer grasp for this kind of body. You have total freedom. There is so much freedom in the mind because of not grasping at this hunk of atoms. By the power of your own wisdom, by the power of your meditation, you can create all sorts of emanation bodies that appear throughout infinite space. If the Buddha appeared here in America, he is going to look American. If the Buddha appears in China he’ll look Chinese. Or maybe a Chinese person goes to America or an American goes to China. We don’t necessarily notice them, but the Buddha’s manifestations are a skillful means to benefit us. These are constantly being emanated out for the benefit of others.

If this seems beyond your comprehension, then just start out with your own experience and consider what it’s like to be attached to this body. Think how much of our energy is used living out that attachment to the body, and just think, “If I didn’t have the attachment to this body, if I didn’t have all this grasping in my mind, how much of my energy would be freed for doing other things?” It will give us some idea that we have different potentials and different abilities to do things.

Audience: What is the difference between being attached to the body and simply taking care of it?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): We have to take care of our body to keep alive. You don’t need to do that with attachment. Attachment is when we become super concerned. “I’ve got to have a beautiful body and a healthy body!” “I’ve got to do this and that and the other thing,”—all this clinging to the body. There is a difference in the attitude with which we relate to our body.

The enlightening influence of the Buddha’s speech

The enlightening influence of the Buddha’s speech is that a Buddha can answer anybody’s questions and teach whatever that person needs to know at that particular time. The enlightening influence of the Buddha’s speech is answering questions, solving problems, giving appropriate teachings. This is indicating to us, again, our own potential, what we can develop.

The enlightening influence of the Buddha’s mind

The enlightening influence of the Buddha’s mind is that, through the power of a Buddha’s concentration, they know the karmic dispositions of the different people. They know the different paths of the mind, the different meditation subjects. Because of knowing all these, then, when they teach, they teach appropriately. The quality of the Buddha’s mind is basically such that they can “tune in” to where other people are; and the Buddha’s mind not just “tunes in,” but it knows how to respond in an effective way. Because sometimes we can tune in to where other people are but we don’t know what advice to give them to help. We are completely stymied. The enlightening influence of the Buddha’s mind isn’t limited in that way.

The good qualities of the Dharma

Now we’ll discuss the qualities of the Dharma. It’s said that when we know the qualities of the Buddhas, then we will get curious about how they attain those qualities; and then we will want to understand the qualities of the Dharma.

When we talk about the Dharma here, we are talking about two things: the true path and the true cessation. Remember before, I reviewed the four Noble Truths and those (true path and true cessation) are the last two of the four Noble Truths. They are also what are considered the Dharma jewel that we take refuge in. The true paths or consciousness are different levels of realization that one starts to attain when one enters what is called the path of seeing, when one has direct perception of emptiness. The true paths are all the different consciousnesses that become antidotes for the different afflictions1 and stains on the mind.

The true paths directly counteract the ignorance, anger and attachment, because the true path is a wisdom consciousness. When you have a wisdom consciousness in your mind, there’s no space for the ignorant consciousness. So in this way, the ignorant consciousness gets counteracted. It gets worn away by the true paths, by those wisdom consciousnesses. Through doing that, one attains the true cessations, which are the stopping, or the ending, or the complete absence of the afflictions in such a way that they never reappear again. For instance, right now we may not be angry but our anger can flair up at any moment. When there is a true cessation of different levels of anger, there will be no flaring up of anger again, because it has been completely removed from the mind. The mind has been completely cleansed. It is like you’ve taken the dirt off the mirror. It can’t come back. There are different levels of cessation because there are different defilements, different degrees of defilements.

Those two things—true path and true cessation—are the ultimate Dharma jewel of refuge. What we are doing by practicing the gradual path is we are building up all these realizations slowly, until we can actually get to the true path where we have direct perception of emptiness. Right now, unless there are some aryas in this room (those beings who have the direct perception of emptiness), the rest of us are quite ordinary. We don’t have path consciousness in our mental continuum right now. But as we practice the lamrim and go through this very skillful arrangement of the different Dharma subjects; as we start to understand the path to enlightenment; as we start to understand what is the path to samsara, to cyclic existence; as we start to understand all these different things about the Dharma and impermanence, refuge, karma, the precious human life and all these things; we are preparing ourselves.

We are in the process of cleansing the mind so that eventually we can gain the true path of consciousness. We are in the process of building up a big accumulation of positive potential, because it takes a lot of merit or positive potential to gain these realizations. All these other things that we are doing help us prepare for that realization of emptiness. The altruistic intention or bodhicitta is especially important in that way, because when we do things out of an altruistic intention then whatever we do has so much more force, so much more potency; there is a much greater accumulation of positive potential on the mind, so that it becomes easier to realize emptiness.

So you see what we are trying to do. It’s a gradual path. It takes time. We are doing these stages down here [initial stages], learning them, practicing them, trying to understand. Then as we progress, we purify, we put more good energy or positive potential on our mind, we gain a deeper understanding of the teachings. At first we understand simpler teachings like the precious human life and death and so on. Then we start understanding more difficult teachings because we will get into the Four Noble Truths, into the bodhicitta teachings and eventually we will understand emptiness as well—not only conceptually, but directly—and it becomes our own internal experience. And through that we can start this process of attaining the true cessations. In other words, we can start this process of cleaning the mirror in such a way that the stains will be gone forever.

Developing understanding of the path: The three-step process

His Holiness always emphasizes that the Dharma is something to be followed due to understanding, not through indiscriminate faith. That doesn’t mean that the people who have indiscriminate faith are bad. I think it’s better that they have indiscriminate faith in the Dharma than if they have indiscriminate faith in the hockey team. People have indiscriminate faith in many different things. I think it isn’t harmful to them [to have indiscriminate faith in the Dharma] because at least it is a positive object. But if you are really going to get anywhere on the path, then you need faith or conviction that comes from understanding.

The understanding comes from hearing teachings, thinking about them using logic and analysis, and then meditating on them. We always have this three-step process to actualize the teachings: hearing and studying or learning; and then thinking or contemplating; and then, finally, meditating. It goes in that order. In that way the Dharma gets implanted in our mind. If we try and meditate but we haven’t heard teachings, we are going to be making up our own meditations. If we try and meditate without having really thought about the subjects and understood them, then we are not going to habituate our mind with the correct perception.

We hear or study or learn in some way, then we think about it. We discuss it with others. We use reason. We debate it. We ask questions, and then we go on to do meditation to integrate it in our mindstream. We can do all three of these in our daily practice, but it’s important to recognize that if we go in order, we are going to have more success. We do all three in our practice but we try and do them in order.

Another quality of the Dharma is that it cuts off the ignorance and it cuts off the craving/attachment. At the time of death it’s the craving/attachment that is the real enemy, because it’s the attachment at death time that makes us grasp and cling with fear to this body. Then because we cannot have this body, it makes us grasp for another body. It’s this grasping mind of attachment, first clinging to this body, then clinging to the next one because it’s obvious we are leaving this one. That craving mind, that mind of desire or attachment is one of the chief factors that makes us take rebirth over and over and over again. Then, of course, once we have taken a rebirth out of attachment, we have all the different problems that come from that rebirth, like getting old and sick and dying, and not getting what we want, and getting what we don’t want, and all these things. The clinging attachment, then, is one of the chief obstacles on the path.

The function of the Dharma is to remove that attachment, to remove the ignorance, to remove the anger, to stop the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth, all of which happen because our mind doesn’t understand what’s good for it. That’s the function of the Dharma. That’s what it does. That’s why if we practice it, the results will be that we have less attachment, less anger, less ignorance, and consequently we create less negative karma. We cling onto fewer things. We have fewer problems. That’s what it’s all about. The reason we are all here is because we are tired of having difficulties and problems, and because we are tired of others having them also. So the Dharma is the antidote, the remedy, the medicine for all of that.

The good qualities of the Sangha

Now we’ll go on and talk about the qualities of the Sangha. It is quite a big subject. We won’t do it in too much detail. The last time we met I began to talk about the three vehicles: the hearer vehicle, solitary realizer vehicle and bodhisattva vehicle. When we talk about the Sangha, we are talking about the highly realized beings of each of those vehicles.

The Three Vehicles

The hearers are people who have a determination to be free of cyclic existence. They practice the path. They abandon the afflicted obscurations2anger, attachment and ignorance—and the karma that causes rebirth. They have a small accumulation of positive potential. As a result, they become an arhat of the hearer vehicle; in other words, a liberated being of the hearer vehicle, somebody who is free of cyclic existence.

In the solitary realizer vehicle the motivation is the same: the determination to be free of cyclic existence. One realizes emptiness in the same way, but one has a greater accumulation of positive potential as a solitary realizer than as a hearer, and one actualizes the result of being an arhat of the solitary realizer vehicle. Again, one has removed the afflicted obscurations and one is free from cyclic existence (one’s own consciousness taking rebirth).

The third vehicle is the bodhisattva vehicle. Here the motivation isn’t just the determination to be free from cyclic existence—the motivation is to become a Buddha in order to free others from cyclic existence. One has an extremely huge collection of positive potential. One practices what is called the six far-reaching attitudes, also known as the six paramitas or the six perfections—different translations. One frees one’s mind not only from the afflicted obscurations that keep one tied to cyclic existence, but one also frees one’s mind from the cognitive obscurations3, the subtle stains on the mind. By freeing our mindstreams from both these levels of obscurations—the afflicted obscurations and the ones that are the cognitive obscurations—then we are able to attain the state of a fully enlightened Buddha. Therefore, we not only free ourselves from cyclic existence, but we also have this whole accumulation of qualities of body, speech and mind and enlightening influence that we have just been talking about. That’s a brief summary of the three vehicles.

The Three Vehicles and the Five Paths as a road map to enlightenment

Now we will go into it a little bit more in-depth. It might seem technical to you. But it’s actually quite practical. It does involve some vocabulary. Don’t let it frighten you off, because what it’s showing is that there are definite steps and stages on the path. It’s indicating to us what things we need to go through. This is like the road map. Instead of just saying, “Yeah, go south and you will get to Cloud Mountain,” it’s saying, “Take I-5 and get off at exit 56,” an actual step-by-step way to progress instead of just some vague thing. What we are going to get into a little bit more now is the step-by-step progression that people take either as a hearer, as a solitary realizer or as a bodhisattva in order to reach their goal, which is either arhatship or the full enlightenment of a Buddha.

We have the three vehicles, and each of the vehicles has five paths. The five paths of each of the vehicles have the same names, but they have slightly different meanings because each vehicle is slightly different. Where the blinkers are in a Toyota is different than where they are in a Cadillac. They both have blinkers but they are in different places. Similarly, the terms are the same in each of the three vehicles, but they have slightly different meanings. The five paths are 1) the path of accumulation, 2) the path of preparation, 3) the path of seeing, 4) the path of meditation and 5) the path of no more learning.

The hearer vehicle

We will start out with the hearer vehicle. This person, in order to enter into the first path, the path of accumulation, has to develop the determination to be free of cyclic existence so that it is spontaneous, day and night, effortless in the consciousness. For example, we have a little bit of determination to be free from cyclic existence when we come and hear teachings, but when we go to the ice cream parlor we forget about it. What we want to do is take the determination to be free that we have now, develop that, deepen it, broaden it. In this way we have it in our mind not just when we are in a nice condition like this (during a teaching session). Also, it is not just a little flicker, but something real deep and profound that we take with us when we go to 31 Flavors. In this way one can go to 31 Flavors and still have the determination to be free of samsara at the same time. When one has that determination day and night spontaneously then one has entered the path of accumulation.

While they are in the path of accumulation they develop their calm abiding, or samatha meditation. They meditate on the four mindfulnesses of body, feelings, mind and phenomena. For those of you who have done vipassana practice in the Burmese tradition or the Thai tradition, this is the basic practice that they do, the practice of the four mindfulnesses. In doing that and through the power of one’s concentration and realization one is able to gain many different miraculous powers. This is true even when one is just on the path of accumulation, because there is a lot of purifying of the mind going on here, a lot of development of positive qualities.

One enters the path of preparation at the time in one’s meditation when one has a correct conceptual understanding of the four noble truths, with a mind of calm abiding and special insight. Having entered the path of accumulation, one continues to meditate, and as one’s meditation progresses, it gets to a certain point where it’s a really “A”, number one, correct conceptual understanding of the Four Noble Truths. It is a really deep conceptual realization, not just a flaky one that goes away. When you have that conceptual realization, the first moment you have that, you enter into the path of preparation. Conceptual doesn’t mean just sitting and thinking about it intellectually. It means in your meditative states you really understand the four Noble Truths perfectly, but your understanding is still conceptual. It’s not totally direct. You don’t directly perceive emptiness at this point. It’s a conceptual realization of emptiness, but it’s not just intellectual rigmarole.

Then on the path of preparation one continues one’s meditation on the Four Noble Truths, particularly one’s meditation on emptiness. At the time when you have a direct, non-conceptual understanding of emptiness (in other words, you’ve removed that little bit of mental image that separated you from emptiness), at that time in your meditation, you attain the path of seeing.

To review, on the path of accumulation, you are accumulating the positive potential, accumulating the causes to gain realizations. On the path of preparation, you are preparing for the direct perception of emptiness. On the path of seeing, you get it. You are seeing emptiness directly.

On the path of meditation, you are habituating yourself. Remember, “meditate” means to habituate or to accustom or to familiarize. So on the path of meditation, the person is habituating their mind with this non-conceptual realization of emptiness, and in the process of doing so, they are removing the different levels of afflicted obscurations of ignorance, anger and attachment on their mind. When one has completely removed all the ignorance, anger and attachment from one’s mind, then one attains the fifth path of the hearer vehicle: the path of no more learning. At that point, one is an arhat. The path of no more learning is arhatship. At that time you go, “Yippee! No more cyclic existence. I’m done with it.”

As an arhat of the hearer vehicle you attain many incredible qualities. You have perfect calm abiding or samatha. You have great vipassana, direct realization of reality. You have purified your mind of all this garbage and much karmic imprint, and so as a result you can manifest in many forms. You can take many forms and dissolve them into one form. You read in the scriptures about the arhats flying in space, and they have fire coming out of the top part of their body, and water coming out of the lower part of the body. Because of the power of one’s mind, one has these kinds of abilities. You can emanate objects. You can transform objects. You can fly. You can miraculously go places where your students are. They have many great methods to help others.

Often in the Mahayana texts, it seems like the arhats are getting put down, because we are being told that the arhats don’t have bodhicitta, they don’t have altruism, they don’t become fully enlightened Buddhas; they just get themselves out of samsara and stay in their own state of self complacent peace, or nirvana. Even though we are told that, that is from a Mahayana perspective. We are being told this in order to invigorate our minds so that from the very beginning, we will enter the Mahayana path.

In actual fact the arhats have incredible, great qualities, a far greater number of qualities than we have. They have much greater love and compassion than we have. So we can’t put arhats down. No way. But in the Mahayana tradition, the reason sometimes it looks that way is because they are encouraging us to take the direct path to enlightenment from the beginning. Rather than having to go through the hearer vehicle or the solitary realizer vehicle, become an arhat, stay in nirvana for a few eons and then have the Buddha wake us up and say, “Hey, you can’t forget about others,” and then you have to start all over at the beginning of the bodhisattva vehicle. People who are arhats can become fully enlightened Buddhas, but it’s going to take them a while.

[Teachings lost due to change of tape.]

… By the way, the reason the hearers are called hearers is because they hear the teachings and then they teach them to others, causing other people to hear them. The reason the solitary realizers are called by that name, is because in their last lifetime, they gained arhatship in a solitary environment, by themselves.

The bodhisattva vehicle

Then we have the bodhisattva vehicle, which has the same five paths, but they are meditated on in a slightly different way. The hearers and the solitary realizers entered their paths of accumulation by having the determination to be free from cyclic existence. Bodhisattvas enter the path of accumulation by having the altruistic intention to become a Buddha for the benefit of sentient beings. Again, not just having the bodhicitta flash through the mind (like when they cultivate the motivation at the beginning of a session or something), and not just having an artificially created motivation, but it’s an altruism that is deep and profound, constant day and night, spontaneous, effortless.

It’s actually possible, then, to develop that in our own minds. There have been all these beings who have entered the Mahayana or the bodhisattva path of accumulation. That’s the demarcation line—the spontaneous bodhicitta in the mind—a pretty big realization just to enter the first path. Now you can see that the motivation is an incredibly strong one. It’s not just, “I want to be free of cyclic existence.” It’s, “I want everyone to be free and I’m going to do something about it. I’m going to become a Buddha.” One has that deep profound motivation day and night, and it is not artificial. The mind is very, very powerful when one enters the path of accumulation.

Then on the path of accumulation, you do lots of meditation. You do many different types of actions to create positive potential. Then at that time in your meditation when you have a correct conceptual understanding of emptiness that is the union of calm abiding and special insight, you enter the path of preparation. This is similar to what the hearers had when they entered their paths of preparation, but the bodhisattvas are doing it with a bodhisattva’s motivation and with a bodhisattva’s accumulation of positive potential. So the realization is really powerful.

You see, the thing about the bodhicitta motivation is that it amplifies the positive potential in the mind. This is because when we create positive potential, it’s done in conjunction with not only our action, but with the motivation for the action. If you are motivated to help one being and you make an offering to the Buddha, you get the good karma, the positive potential of helping one being. If you are motivated to help all sentient beings by becoming a Buddha, you get the positive potential that accumulates from having this motivation to help all beings. This is why we develop the bodhicitta motivation over and over and over again before we do anything, because it enhances our mind. It gets our mind very clean clear about why we are doing something. It also becomes very powerful so that we create an incredible amount of positive potential. Our mind gets enriched very quickly. It’s like the difference between using a cheap fertilizer and an A Number 1 fertilizer.

Then the bodhisattvas continue to meditate on emptiness. When they have direct perception of emptiness, a non-conceptual perception, they enter the path of seeing of the bodhisattva vehicle. Their samatha and vipassana—their calm abiding and special insight—is direct at this point instead of just conceptual, which is the case on the path of preparation. At this time they begin the process of removing the different levels of obscuration from their mind.

Now on the path of meditation, they are familiarizing themselves with the realization of emptiness. They are also accumulating a lot of positive potential through the practice of the six far-reaching attitudes. Actually one is practicing the six far-reaching attitudes throughout the whole path: generosity, ethics, patience, joyous effort, concentration and wisdom. Even we are trying to practice them, but on the path of seeing and path of meditation, a bodhisattva perfects them, a bodhisattva completes them. Why? Because the bodhisattva has a very powerful mind at that level of the path—path of seeing and path of meditation. They have not only the spontaneous altruistic intention to become a Buddha, but they also have a direct perception of emptiness at the same time, and these two realizations together completely transform generosity.

You can be generous and give an apple. A three-year-old can give somebody an apple, but it’s a very different act than if a bodhisattva gives somebody an apple. Because a three-year-old’s mind—assuming that the three-year-old isn’t a bodhisattva—is just, “Here Mom, have an apple. Here Dad, have an apple.” A bodhisattva, their mind is giving this apple, but with the intention to become a Buddha for the benefit of all beings, and with a realization of the emptiness of inherent existence of the following: oneself as the person who is giving the apple, the apple which is the object that is being given, the giving of the apple, and the recipient of the apple. In other words, realizing the emptiness of inherent existence of the whole scene, and yet, although it is empty of inherent existence, still all of these things (the giver, the gift, the giving and the recipient) are dependent arisings and they appear like illusions. So when a bodhisattva gives an apple, they have this complete incredible understanding going on in their mind. That is why we say they perfect their generosity. They complete the perfection of generosity. They complete the far-reaching attitude of generosity.

What we are doing now on our level is we’re hearing about how the bodhisattvas meditate and we are trying to do it in a similar way. We are trying to do it according to our level. We are not bodhisattvas yet. Don’t sit there and emotionally beat up on yourself because you are not a bodhisattva. If you were a bodhisattva you wouldn’t be here doing this right now. You are what you are. It’s good enough. It’s fantastic. But we can still improve. We listen to what they are doing, how they practice, and we try and do it. We do it a little bit at a time. We forget it. We don’t do it right. We get lazy. We do it, but it’s kind of weak. We do it slowly, slowly, slowly. It’s like a kid learning to ride a bicycle. It’s like when we learned how to read when we were kids: slowly, slowly. But you do it. One step at a time. That’s what we are in the process of doing.

The ten grounds or bhumis

Now between the path of seeing and the path of meditation, there are what are called the ten grounds, or the ten bhumis, which correspond to the ten far-reaching attitudes. You will hear this terminology again. Bhumi is a Sanskrit word. It means ground. These are different levels of realization that are interspersed between the path of seeing and the path of meditation, and on each of these ten you perfect a certain quality. So on the first of the ten grounds when you are on the path of seeing, you perfect the far-reaching attitude of generosity. The other nine grounds are all on the path of meditation.

The second ground that you perfect is that of ethics. (The second far-reaching attitude that is perfected is ethics.) Then one perfects the far-reaching attitude of patience, then the far-reaching attitude of joyous effort, then the far-reaching attitude of meditative stabilization, or concentration, and then the far- reaching attitude of wisdom. That’s the usual list of far-reaching attitudes, the six. But we can also talk of the ten far-reaching attitudes. So here we are adding four more.

The seventh far-reaching attitude is skillful means; then prayer; then power or strength; and then deep wisdom or deep awareness. So you see there are these ten far-reaching attitudes. There are ten grounds. One prefects them gradually. In the process of doing that, one is removing all of the afflicted obscurations from one’s own mind. In fact, by the time you start the eighth ground, you are finished with the afflicted obscurations.

On the eighth, ninth, and tenth grounds you are purifying your mind of all the cognitive obscurations. Then at the end of the tenth ground you enter into what is called the vajra-like meditation: meditative stabilization or samadhi. At the end of that meditation, your mind is completely purified of all the stains on the mind, which are the cognitive obscurations, and you become a fully enlightened Buddha. That’s the path of no more learning of the bodhisattva vehicle. It’s a fully enlightened Buddha. At that time one gains all the qualities of the Buddha that we had been talking about. One’s mind becomes the truth body, one automatically has an enjoyment body and all the emanation bodies.

This is a whole process of cause and effect. It’s like planting a seed in the ground and the seed grows. Each moment of the seed growing and becoming a sprout and growing bigger and getting flowers and bearing fruit, it’s in a sequence and it’s cause and effect; and it just gradually happens like that. This is the kind of path that we’re starting on.

When we hear this kind of thing, it’s a very good way for us to gain some faith that it’s possible to do this. We can see that it’s all set out: step 1, step 2, step 3, step 4, so we don’t need to get confused, we don’t need to get perplexed, “What do I practice? How do I do it? What do you realize?” All these people have done it before. They write out the information sheet on how to do it, and that’s what all this is. They say, you do this and then this happens, and you do this and this happens. You start out in Seattle, you go south on I-5. Look out for Boeing because then you know you are going in the right direction. You go further and you see the sign for Olympia. You see the capital. “Okay, I’m on the right way. I should expect this.” You have the directions. You know the landmarks of the different things. That’s what this is. It’s set out for us.

Qualities of the bodhisattvas

When somebody becomes a bodhisattva of the third path, the path of seeing (in the first ground/bhumi), at that time they get this set of twelve qualities and they can behold a hundred Buddhas. They can receive inspiration from all hundred of these Buddhas. They can live for a hundred eons. They can see a hundred eons into the past and the future. They can enter and arise from a hundred samadhis. They can vibrate a hundred world systems. They can illuminate a hundred world systems with their radiance. They can make a hundred sentient beings ripe for realization. They can travel to a hundred pure lands of the Buddha. They can open a hundred doors of Dharma, which would mean teachings. They can emanate into a hundred bodies and each of these bodies is surrounded by a hundred bodhisattvas.

In the second ground all these things happen, but it’s a thousand. In the third it’s a hundred thousand, the fourth a billion, the fifth ten billion, the sixth a trillion and the seventh a hundred quintillion, and they didn’t give me the numbers for the eighth, ninth and tenth (grounds). [laughter] But you can get the idea that our mind has some pretty incredible capacities if we use them. If it seems like, “What are you talking about? Me, being able to do those kinds of things?” Well, even the scientists say that we only use a very small percentage of our brain cells. Even the scientists are talking about our under-used capacity. This is also saying that if we free our minds from certain limitations and start using our potential and capacity, we can do this, too.


That concludes talking about the qualities of the three jewels of the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Tonight we covered in specific the qualities of the enlightening influence of the Buddha and the qualities of the Dharma. Then we went into this rather lengthy explanation of the qualities of the Sangha so that we can see the paths and the cessations, the Dharma that the Sangha actualizes to become Buddhas. You see how the three interrelate also. Knowing this, then, when we say, “I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha,” it’s like, “Wow, I know what I am saying. I now know something about the qualities of those that I am looking to for spiritual guidance and to be my example on the path.” We also know the kind of help we can receive. We also know what we can become ourselves.

Questions and answers

Audience: One of the things that I really appreciate about Buddhist practice is its simplicity. So I am thinking about how to reconcile some of these teachings that seem so complex to me, and for that reason I get this real sense of aversion about the complexity. I get confused; basically, I get confused. I feel hopeless and frustrated. [parts inaudible] How do we deal with this?

VTC: When it just all seems like too much, how do you make it simple again? Let’s consider the process of becoming a doctor. As a doctor, you go in and you see people with certain symptoms and you know immediately what to do to help them. It’s just like second nature, you don’t need to go back and look at your medical books and think of what to do and study. You see these patients and you’ve had a lot of experience and you know what to do. If I went in and tried to do your job, I would be completely bungle- minded. If you gave me a medical book to read, if I knew which way was up that would be good, let alone try and pronounce some of the words in it.

But somehow you started out as a little kid in kindergarten and first grade who didn’t know how to read or add or do any of these things. But you increased your ability over time. You went to medical school, you learned all these different things. As you learned them, they became like second nature, so that the things that were overwhelming when you were in first grade are just so habitual now you don’t think twice about them. Or the things that when you were a beginning medical student just knocked the socks off of you, and you couldn’t understand; now you can teach to other people. So I think it’s just a thing of being at where we are at, knowing where we can go, and slowly, slowly …

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: So it just seems like this is all a bunch of hocus-pocus added on by history, but you like the simplicity of the practice. When you do the practice what do you want to attain out of the practice?

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Then what you can do is learn the methods of meditation, learn the methods of the teaching, practice them and see what attainments you get. Then maybe you can come and tell us what you have attained afterwards, if it corresponds with any of this or if it’s something completely different. In other words, don’t get hung up on a hundred and a thousand and a million and, “Why isn’t it 877½?” To me, I don’t think getting hung up in the mathematics of this thing is the important thing. If you’re studying to be a neuroscientist, then you say there’s “x” number of brain cells in the brain. But when you are operating on somebody, you are not sitting there thinking, “Well do they have “x” number or “x” number plus one, or maybe they have a small brain, so they have 10,000 brain cells less.” It really doesn’t matter at that point.

Vipassana vs. Tibetan meditation practice

VTC: Again, that is going to depend a lot on each person’s individual disposition. It’s very interesting, the people who have done vipassana say, “Oh, it’s so simple, it’s so simple.” If you go to Sri Lanka or Thailand you’re going to find reams and reams of academia describing the path, too. It’s just that when you go to IMS (Insight Meditation Society), they’ve stripped everything away and just told you to breathe. In all of the Buddhist traditions, there’s an incredible academic scholarly side to it explaining many steps and things and what’s abandoned on each level of the path. So don’t get into this thing of, “Well, I’m just going to go to Thailand and I don’t have to worry about it,” or “I will go to Burma and I won’t have to worry about it.” It’s just that the way things are being presented in America have been simplified to such an extent that people are able to get something that they can get their hands on and do right away and feel some sense of accomplishment.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Then what you can do is you can sit and watch your breath. And when you start off your prayers and you say, “I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha,” sometime over the next however many meditation sessions you do of watching your breath, sometime the question may appear, “What’s the Buddha?” [laughter]

I am sitting here watching my breath doing vipassana meditation, “What’s vipassana? What really is vipassana?” Or do you know what samatha is? Do you know what to look for, what the signs are of attaining samatha, what the signs are of attaining vipassana? Do you know all the steps to do to get that? Just keep watching your breath and some time, a question might come. Then maybe some of this information might be useful. Or you might be sitting there watching your breath and then these thoughts come, “I am sitting here watching my breath and this is so boring. What am I doing this for? What am I trying to get out of this? Do I just want to sit here and breathe in and out all the time? [laughter] Where am I trying to go? What am I aiming at? Am I just trying to get some peace of mind so that when I go to work I can smile?”

Purpose of meditation

That is definitely part of the reason; you will get that. You watch your breath and you will get that. You can go to work and you can smile, “Well, why should I keep on doing breathing now? What am I trying to get after I have gotten that? Where am I really going in watching my breath? What is my human potential? Is the extent of my human potential sitting and watching my breath so I can go to work and smile? Is that all?” I mean, that is a wonderful thing to want out of life—to go to work and smile and not get angry—but is there more to get out of life than that? And when you die, sure your mind is going to be more relaxed because you have gone to work and you smiled, but where are you going to go when you die? What’s going to happen when you die? In the long term of this, where are you going with it all?

So we have to be able to go back and forth.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yeah, then put it on the back burner. In other words, the Buddha did teach that “You don’t have to believe this all just because I said so.” You check it out through experience, through logic; you see what happens. You use what is useful to you, but the thing is, we shouldn’t throw something out just because it is not useful to us at the moment. Right now you might be thinking, “A clock is useful to me, but I don’t need a hot water bottle, so I’ll get rid of the hot water bottle.” But you might need a hot water bottle tomorrow.

The idea is that when things don’t make sense, put them on the back burner. Don’t knock your head against the wall. If you can accurately disprove something, then throw it out. If you can say with certainty, “This absolutely is not true, this is total garbage. It’s a falsity. It’s a lie,” throw it out! You don’t need it. But if it’s something that you just don’t get, put it on the back burner. Don’t completely throw it out. But use what is beneficial to you right now, and remember that you change. When you were a little kid, size ten clothes didn’t help you at all. They were a nuisance. You didn’t want to put them in your little bag when you were three years old, because they weigh you down, but now they are very useful.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: That’s true. You can just say, “I don’t know.” There are many things in this world that we don’t know. We can’t prove them. We can’t disprove them. So we just say, “I don’t know.” How many things do we really know? [laughter] What do we really know? You live with a person for ten years—do you know that person? Do you know yourself? We do know something but we have limited knowledge. But the knowledge grows. It grows. It changes.

Okay. Let’s just sit quietly.

This teaching is based on the Lamrim or The Gradual Path to Enlightenment.

  1. “Afflictions” is the translation that Venerable Chodron now uses in place of “disturbing attitudes.” 

  2. “Afflicted obscurations” is the translation that Venerable Chodron now uses in place of “deluded obscurations.” 

  3. “Cognitive obscurations” is the translation that Venerable Chodron now uses in place of “obscurations to omniscience.” 

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.

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