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.
Before actually engaging in the path in common with the initial level practitioner—someone who contemplates death and impermanence, generates as a result of that an aspiration for a good rebirth, and then practices refuge and observing karma and its effect in order to actualize that aspiration—we must reflect on our current human life, its meaning and purpose, and its rarity, so that we do not take our present opportunity for granted.
The path in common with the initial level practitioner
Precious Human Life
Check if you have conditions conducive for spiritual practice. Consider the advantage of each quality, rejoice if you have it, and think of how to gain it if you don’t. (Note: the points of this meditation have been summarized from the outline of eight freedoms and ten fortunes found in Lamrim texts.)
- Are you free from unfortunate states? Do you have a human body and human intelligence?
- Are your sense and mental faculties healthy and complete?
- Do you live at a time when a Buddha has appeared and given teachings? Do those teachings still exist in a pure form? Do you live in a place where you have access to them?
- Have you committed any of the five heinous actions (killing one’s father, mother, or an arhat, drawing blood from a Buddha’s body, or causing schism in the sangha), which obscure the mind and make practice difficult?
- Are you naturally interested in spiritual practice? Do you have instinctive belief in things worthy of respect, such as ethics, the path to enlightenment, compassion, and the Dharma?
- Do you have a supportive group of spiritual friends who encourage your practice and who act as good examples? Do you live near a sangha community of monks and nuns?
- Do you have the material conditions for practice such as food, clothes, and so forth?
- Do you have access to qualified spiritual teachers who can guide you along the correct path?
Conclusion: Feel like a beggar who just won the lottery, that is, feel joyful and enthusiastic about everything you have going for you in your life.
The purpose and opportunity of our precious human life
- What does it mean to you to live a meaningful life? To what extent are you doing that now? How could you make your life more meaningful?
- Consider the purpose of having a precious human life:
- Temporary goals within cyclic existence: we have the ability to create the causes for happy rebirths in the future.
- Ultimate goals: we have the ability to attain liberation or enlightenment, that is, to be free of all problems and capable of helping others effectively.
- We can make each moment of our lives meaningful, transforming it into the path to enlightenment by practicing thought training. We can generate bodhicitta each morning and remember it throughout the day as the motivation for everything we do.
Conclusion: Recognize that there are many beneficial things to do in life and be enthusiastic about doing them.
The rarity and difficulty of attaining a precious human life
To develop a sense of the value of your present life, consider:
- The causes for a precious human life are:
- keeping pure ethics by abandoning the ten destructive actions
- practicing the six far-reaching attitudes (paramitas)
- making pure prayers to be able to have a precious human life and practice the Dharma
Examine the actions you and others do. Do most people create these causes each day? Is it easy to create the causes for a precious human life?
- Attaining a precious human life in the ocean of cyclic existence is as likely as a blind tortoise who comes to the ocean’s surface once every hundred years and puts his head through a golden ring floating on the ocean’s surface. How likely is this?
- Are there more human beings or animals on this planet? Of those who are human, are there more who have precious human lives or more who do not? Looking at the numbers, is it rare or common to have a precious human life?
Conclusion: Feel amazed at your fortune to have this present opportunity and determine to use it well.
We are extremely fortunate to have a precious human life with its freedoms and fortunes. It is rare and difficult to attain and have great purpose and meaning. But, how much does this understanding influence our daily lives? Do we spend most of our time and energy cultivating our minds and hearts? Or, are we ruled by our attachment and anger, getting tangled up in distractions, such as the eight worldly concerns, which seem important now, but in the long term are not?
The eight worldly concerns
The eight worldly concerns are the chief distractions to practicing the Dharma and transforming our minds. Examine how the four pairs of worldly concerns operate in your life:
- Make specific examples of each type of attachment and each type of aversion. Do they make you happy or confused? Do they help you to grow or do they keep you in prison?
- Reflect that the greater the attachment to something, the greater the aversion when you don’t get it or are separated from it.
- Apply some of the antidotes to attachment and anger in order to transform those attitudes.
- Attachment to receiving material possessions and aversion to not receiving them or to being separated from them.
- Attachment to praise or approval and aversion to blame or disapproval.
- Attachment to a good reputation (having a good image, others thinking well of you) and aversion to a bad reputation.
- Attachment to pleasures of the five senses and aversion to unpleasant experiences.
Conclusion: Feel that you don’t want to continue living your life on “automatic” and that you want to change the attitudes that cause you to have problems.
The eight worldly concerns dominate our lives, cause us problems, and make us waste our potential. They arise easily when we think only of the happiness of this life. Reflecting on impermanence and death enlarges our perspective and helps us set our priorities wisely. This, in turn, enables us to turn our attention away from the eight worldly concerns to more important activities, such as cultivating compassion and wisdom.
The nine-point death meditation
Considering the mortality of ourselves and others helps us clarify our priorities in life so that we make our life truly worthwhile and meaningful. Thinking of your own life, consider:
- Death is inevitable, definite. There is no way to avoid dying.
- Nothing can prevent our eventually dying. Everyone who is born must die, no matter who we are. Reflect that you and everyone you know and care for will sometime die.
- Our life span can’t be extended when it is time for us to die. With each passing moment we approach death. We cannot turn the clock back or escape from death.
- We will die even if we have not had time to practice Dharma.
Conclusion: You must practice the Dharma, that is, you must transform your mind.
- The time of death is uncertain. We don’t know when we’ll die.
- In general there is no certainty of lifespan in our world. People die at all ages. There is no guarantee we will live long. Reflect on the people you know who have died. How old were they? What were they doing when they died? Did they expect to die that day?
- There are more chances of dying and less of remaining alive. It takes great effort to stay alive and very little to die. Protecting our body by feeding, clothing, and sheltering it takes a lot of energy. Dying, on the other hand, requires little effort.
- Our body is extremely fragile. Small things—viruses, bacteria, or pieces of metal—can harm it and cause death.
Conclusion: You must practice Dharma continually, beginning now.
- Nothing else can help at the time of death except the Dharma.
- Wealth is of no help. Our material possessions can’t come with us after death. We spend our lives working hard to accumulate and protect our things. At the time of death, the karma we created doing this comes with us, while we leave the money and possessions behind.
- Friends and relatives are of no help. They remain here while we go on to our next life. However, the karmic seeds of the actions we did in relation to these people comes with us into the next life.
- Not even our body is of any help. It is burnt or buried and is of no use to anyone. The karma we created in beautifying, pampering, and seeking pleasure for this body, however, will influence our future experiences.
Conclusion: You must practice the Dharma purely. You may have spent your entire life accumulating and caring for these things, but at the time of death, you must separate from them without choice. What, then, is the use of chasing after these things while you’re alive and creating negative karma to get them? Since your karma comes with you and only your spiritual development aids you at death, isn’t it more worthwhile to pay attention to these? Knowing this, what is a healthy and balanced attitude to have towards material possessions, friends and relatives, and your body?
Imagining our death
- Imagine a circumstance in which you are dying: where you are, how you are dying, and the reactions of friends and family. How do you feel about dying? What is happening in your mind?
- Ask yourself:
- Given that I will die one day, what is important in my life?
- What do I feel good about having done?
- What do I regret?
- What do I want to do and to avoid doing while I’m alive?
- What can I do to prepare for death?
- What are my priorities in life?
Conclusion: Feel the importance of making your life meaningful. Make specific conclusions about what you want to do and to avoid doing from now on.
Reflecting on our transient nature and mortality makes us concerned with preparing for death and for our future rebirths. To do this, we need guides on the path and thus turn to the Buddhas, Dharma, and Sangha for refuge.
Refuge: Its meaning, causes, and objects
- Refuge means to entrust our spiritual guidance to the Three Jewels: the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Taking refuge opens our heart so that they can teach us and guide us along the path to freedom. Contemplate the effect that taking refuge in the Three Jewels could have on your life and lives.
- To deepen your refuge, cultivate its causes:
- Considering what your future would be like if you continued to live on “automatic,” be aware of the possibility of experiencing suffering in the future.
- Thinking about the qualities of the Three Jewels and how they can steer you away from potential suffering and its causes, develop confidence in their ability to guide you.
- Remembering that others are in the same situation as you are, let your compassion for them arise so that you seek a means to progress spiritually for their sake as well as your own.
- To enrich your faith and confidence in the Three Jewels as objects of refuge, develop a general idea of their qualities:
- The Buddhas are those who have eliminated all defilements and developed all good qualities completely.
- The Dharma is the cessations of all unsatisfactory conditions and their causes, and the paths leading to those cessations.
- The Sangha are those who have direct perception of reality.
Conclusion: With a sense of caution regarding suffering and with confidence in the ability of the Three Jewels, from your heart turn to the Three Jewels for guidance.
Refuge: Analogy and qualities of the Three Jewels
- Contemplate the analogy of the sick person seeking a cure to his illness. Beings trapped in cyclic existence are like sick people. We turn to the Buddha, who is like a doctor, to diagnose our illness and prescribe a cure. The Dharma is the medicine we must take and the Sangha are the nurses who help us take it. In this way, we can be liberated from misery.
- To enhance our faith and confidence, consider why the Buddhas are suitable guides on the path:
- They are free from the extremes of cyclic existence and self-complacent peace.
- They have skillful and effective means to free others from all fear.
- They have equal compassion for all, regardless of whether we have faith in them or not.
- They fulfill the aims of all beings whether or not those beings have helped them.
Conclusion: From your heart, make a determination to follow these reliable guides and to put into practice their guidance.
Having entrusted our spiritual guidance to the Three Jewels, we want to follow their counsel. The first advice they give us is to stop harming others and ourselves. We do this by observing actions (karma) and their effects.
Karma is intentional action. Such actions leave imprints on our mindstream that influence what we will experience in the future. Karma has four general aspects. Relate each of these to events in your life.
- Karma is definite. Happiness always comes from constructive actions and pain from destructive ones. Therefore it is to our advantage to create the former and abandon the latter.
- Karma is expandable. A small cause can lead to a large result. Thus we should take care to abandon even small negativities, and to do even small constructive actions.
- If the cause hasn’t been created, the result won’t be experienced. If we don’t act destructively, we will not experience hardships and obstacles; if we don’t create the cause for realizations of the path, we will not gain them.
- Karmic imprints do not get lost; we will experience their results. However, negative imprints can be purified by the four opponent powers and positive imprints can be impaired by getting angry or generating wrong views.
Conclusion: Determine to observe your motivations and actions so you create the causes of happiness and avoid the causes of suffering.
The ten destructive actions
Doing a life review to take stock of our harmful and beneficial actions enables us to purify the former and develop a strong intention to live wisely and compassionately in the future. To do this, reflect on which destructive actions you have done. Understand how you got involved in them, as well as their immediate and long-term results. The ten destructive actions are:
- Killing: taking the life of any sentient being, including animals.
- Stealing: taking what has not been given to you. This includes not paying fees or taxes that you owe, using supplies at your workplace for your own personal use without permission, and not returning things you have borrowed.
- Unwise sexual behavior: adultery and carelessly using sexuality that harms others physically or emotionally.
- Lying: deliberately deceiving others.
- Divisive speech: causing others to be disharmonious or preventing them from reconciling.
- Harsh words: insulting, abusing, ridiculing, teasing, or deliberately hurting another’s feelings.
- Idle talk: talking about unimportant topics for no particular purpose.
- Coveting: desiring possessions that belong to others and planning how to obtain them.
- Maliciousness: planning to hurt others or to take revenge on them.
- Wrong views: Strongly holding to cynical views that deny the existence of important things, such as the possibility to become enlightened, rebirth, karma, and the Three Jewels.
Conclusion: Experience a sense of relief because you have been honest with yourself about the past. Remember you can purify the imprints of these mistaken actions. Resolve to direct your energy in constructive directions and to avoid acting in ways that harm yourself and others.
It is equally important to be aware of our constructive actions, our motivations for doing them, and their results. For each type of positive action mentioned below:
- Make specific examples of the times you have engaged in it.
- What was your motivation?
- How did you do the action?
- What were the short- and long-term results?
- How can you protect your tendencies to act constructively? How can you increase your positive actions?
Constructive actions include:
- Being in a situation in which we could act negatively but choosing not to.
- Doing the ten constructive actions, which are the opposite of the ten destructive ones. Saving life is the opposite of killing, protecting and respecting others’ possessions is the opposite of stealing, and so forth.
- Cultivating the six far-reaching attitudes: generosity, ethical discipline, patience, joyous effort, concentration, and wisdom.
Conclusion: Rejoice at the positive deeds you have done and encourage yourself to act in beneficial ways in the future.
The results of karma
Each complete action—that is, one with preparation, actual action, and completion—brings four results. Contemplating the relationship between specific actions and their effects helps us to understand the causes of our present experiences and the future results of our present actions. This, in turn, enables us to take responsibility for our happiness by avoiding destructive actions, purifying those already done, and acting constructively. For each of the ten destructive and constructive actions, contemplate their:
- Maturation result: the body and mind we take in our future lives. All destructive actions result in unfortunate rebirths. All constructive actions result in happy rebirths.
- Result similar to the cause:
- In terms of our experience: we experience things similar to what we have caused others to experience. For example, if we criticize others, we will receive unfair criticism.
- In terms of our actions: each action causes us to form habitual behavior patterns. For example, frequent lying develops the habit of lying.
- Effect on the environment: living in a pleasant or unpleasant place. For example, divisive, disharmonious speech brings rebirth in an inhospitable environment with severe storms.
Conclusion: Not wanting to experience the painful or unpleasant results of your harmful deeds, resolve to purify them through applying the four opponent powers.
Four opponent powers for purification
Doing the four opponent powers repeatedly can purify the karmic imprints of our destructive actions and relieve the psychological heaviness of guilt.
- Visualize the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in front of you and generate regret (not guilt!) for your negative actions and motivations by honestly admitting them. Feel that the Buddhas and bodhisattvas witness your unburdening of these things and look at you with complete acceptance and compassion.
- Repair the relationship with those whom you have harmed. In the case of holy beings, reaffirm your refuge in them. In the case of ordinary beings, generate a positive attitude towards them and the altruistic intention to benefit them in the future. If it is possible to do so, apologize to those you have harmed. When it is not possible, focus on wishing them well.
- Make a determination not to do the actions again in the future. For those actions you cannot hon- estly say you will never do again, make a determination to abandon them for a specific amount of time that is reasonable for you.
- Engage in remedial behavior. This may be community service, spiritual practice, prostrations, making offerings, visualizing light and nectar flowing from the Buddhas into you while you recite mantra, meditating on bodhicitta or emptiness, and so forth.
Conclusion: Feel you have purified all negative karmic imprints and released all guilt. Feel psychologically and spiritually cleansed so you can go on with your life with a fresh and positive attitude.
By gaining a firm understanding of the meditations in common with the initial level practitioner, we begin to change our attitudes and behavior. As a result, we are happier and get along better with others. In addition, we prepare so we can die peacefully and have a good rebirth.