The preliminaries

Homage and Verses 1 and 2

Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given in Missouri.

Three Principal Aspects 02: Praise and Verses 1-2 (download)

I’d like to continue on from the introduction that was given last time. There’s a little story of two Tibetan practitioners, one named Geshe Puchungwa and he asked his disciple Geshe Chengawa, “Would you rather be a master of the five sciences, have perfect single-pointed concentration and clairvoyance, or would you rather be a person who hasn’t yet realized Lama Atisha’s teachings but has the firm recognition of their truth?” Geshe Chengawa responded, “I’d actually rather be the person who has firm recognition of the truth of the Buddhist teachings.” Why did he respond that way when the alternative was having knowledge of those five sciences? That means like having a Ph.D. in many topics, having perfect single-pointed concentration, and having clairvoyance. In the world those things are really respected and seem like quite high attainments. Yet here Geshe Chengawa is saying, “No, actually I would prefer to be somebody who hasn’t even realized the Buddhist teachings and three principal aspects of the path but who has the firm recognition of their truth.”

The reason he responded that way is this: if we look at our situation in cyclic existence as being one that’s from beginningless time until now, well, in past lives we’ve all had perfect knowledge of all the sciences. We’ve all been extremely well educated. We’ve all been very successful business people. We’ve all had single-pointed concentration and the ability to remain in the jhanas for days and days. We’ve all had clairvoyant powers in the past. These alone don’t liberate you from cyclic existence. Although you have all those qualities when you die those qualities end; also the negative karma that we have accumulated ripens and throws us into rather unpleasant rebirths in the future. So those qualities don’t have any lasting impact on the mind.

Whereas, if we are able to train in the Buddhist teachings—and in specific know the gradual path to enlightenment, know the basics, and the fundamental principles of the Buddhist teachings—then even if we haven’t realized them, those seeds are implanted deep in our mind. It’s those seeds that will lead to the realizations which will eventually lead us to liberation and enlightenment.

It’s quite important to think about this. Many times, like when I was in Singapore, so many people came and said, “Oh, I want to learn how to have clairvoyant powers.” I used to respond, “Well, what good are they going to do you? So what if you have clairvoyant powers. If you don’t have a kind heart, clairvoyant powers can actually do damage.” If we’re full of arrogance, clairvoyant powers just make us generate more negative attitudes. So what’s the purpose? It’s really much better to train our mind in the gradual path. That’s what we’re doing by studying this text The Three Principal Aspects of the Path.

The three principal aspects as motivation

Let’s review these three principals.

  1. The first one is renunciation or the determination to be free.
  2. The second was bodhicitta or the altruistic intention to become enlightened for the benefit of sentient beings.
  3. The third was the correct view that correctly understands emptiness—the lack of inherent existence.

Now if we have these, it really helps us purify our motivation. With a pure motivation then everything we do in our life becomes part of our path of practice. In Buddhism our motivation is the chief determining factor of the value of what we do, not the action and how it looks to the others, but the motivation is the important thing. We can listen to lots of Buddhist teachings. But as I was saying last time, let’s say we come with a motivation that we just want to listen so we know lots of stuff so we can teach the others and have a good job. Well, that’s a worldly motivation.

Listening to the teachings doesn’t really become something virtuous if we have a worldly motivation. Whereas, if we’re able to understand and generate the three principal aspects of the path in our mind, then automatically our motivation not only for listening to teachings but for everything we do in our life is going to be a good one. This is because with renunciation (or the determination to be free) we have set the purpose of our life as being something beyond “my happiness now.” When we have a motivation of my happiness now, that’s the same old motivation everybody has all the time including the dogs and cats—I want my happiness, my pleasure, right now. Whatever we do with that motivation doesn’t become the cause of liberation even if the action itself looks like a Dharma action. Whereas if we’re able to cultivate some of that determination to be free, then whatever we do—even we’re walking down the street with the attitude of, I’m doing this to attain liberation—then walking down the street becomes the cause of liberation.

Similarly, if we’re able to generate bodhicitta (or the altruistic intention) which is the second principal aspect of the path, then our motivation is enhanced even more. Our motivation then becomes, I want to become a fully enlightened Buddha to be able to benefit all beings most effectively. If we have that motivation then any action we do with that motivation becomes a cause for full enlightenment—even if that action is washing the dishes, or vacuuming, or fixing the car, or walking down the street. This is the power of our motivation.

That’s why it’s so important when we first wake up in the morning to generate our motivation for the day. Really ask yourself, Why I am alive today? What is important today? Well, not the pleasure of just this life and so for that reason I’m not going to harm others. I’m going to benefit them as much as I can. The long term purpose of everything I do I want to be enlightenment, not just my own little piddely pleasure.

If we generate that motivation in the morning it influences what we do in the whole day. It helps our mind to remain positive. It helps us make wise choices about what to do and what not to do. As long as that motivation is active anything we do becomes something virtuous and that eventually leads to enlightenment.

Similarly, the correct view (the third principal aspect of the path), if we have that in our mind then instead of seeing everything as solid and inherently existent we’re able to see things as being like an illusion. That helps us to not get attached to them or to not get angry when things don’t go the way we want. This wisdom gives us the courage to really go through the bodhisattva path to enlightenment. It’s what actually cuts the root of our cyclic existence. So if we have the correct view then that clearly helps everything that we do during the day become something virtuous that leads us to enlightenment. This is why learning these three principals is so important and why Geshe Chengawa replied the way he did to the question.

Method and wisdom

The three principal aspects of the path relate to what we call wisdom and method. This is something quite important because when we talk about the path to enlightenment we say it has two branches, method and wisdom. These are often said to be like two wings of a bird. For a bird to fly the bird needs both wings. One just isn’t going to do. Method is like the strong motivation that propels us to practice and all the virtuous activities that we do along the path. Wisdom, or the correct view, is the deepening of our understanding of emptiness. This will eventually lead to the eradication of ignorance which is the root of all of our suffering.

There are all these correlations in Buddhism: it’s kind of nice. We have method and wisdom. Sometimes method is identified with the right and wisdom with the left side of our body. Sometimes method is symbolized by male energy, wisdom by female energy. We talk about the two collections, the collection of merit and the collection of wisdom. (This comes in our dedication prayer that we say after lunch.) The collection of positive potential or merit is done through the practice of method. It leads us at the time of enlightenment to attain the form body of a Buddha; these are the manifestation bodies that a Buddha manifests in for the benefit of beings. The correct view, the wisdom side of the path, leads us to the collection of wisdom. At the time of enlightenment that collection of wisdom turns into the dharmakaya, the omniscient mind of the Buddha.

There you see that the method is correlated with the collection of merit which is correlated with the rupakaya or form bodies of a Buddha. The correct view or wisdom is correlated with the collection of wisdom, which is correlated to the dharmakaya, the omniscient mind of the Buddhas. It shows us that what we practice on the path leads to specific results at the time of enlightenment. Understanding that then we want to make sure that we practice both of these wings, the method and the wisdom. These verses in The Three Principal Aspects of the Path contain the essence of all the practice of method and wisdom.

How true renunciation helps us develop bodhicitta

Last time we talked a little bit about how each of the three relates to the others and why they come in the order that they do, although the order isn’t a fixed order necessarily. Without renunciation, without the determination of be free of cyclic existence we can’t generate great compassion. Without great compassion we can’t generate bodhicitta. This is an important point because I find in teaching in the West, lots of people love to have the teachings on love and compassion. They love the teachings on bodhicitta. You know, develop compassion thinking of everybody being kind. But they aren’t very fond of the teachings about the disadvantages of cyclic existence and all the suffering and problems and difficulty we have in our life.

People go, “I don’t want to think about that. Why do we have to meditate on death and the fact that I am always dissatisfied? Why meditate about the fact that I don’t get what I want and I get all these problems? Meditate that mind is afflicted by anger? Why do I have to think about that stuff? It’s so much nicer to think about love and compassion.” Many Westerners skip over that first part that leads to the determination to be free. They just meditate on compassion which in one way is nice, the compassionate meditations benefit them. But we can’t actually generate great compassion for all beings unless we have compassion for ourselves first.

As I was saying before, that renunciation, that the determination to be free is compassion for ourselves. It’s wanting ourselves to be free of cyclic existence. In order to want ourselves to be free of cyclic existence we have to be able look very clearly without shirking and see all the disadvantages of cyclic existence. Unless we see the disadvantages clearly we won’t have any energy to leave cyclic existence behind. If we don’t have that energy to leave behind cyclic existence then we don’t really have true compassion for ourselves. We’re not really wanting ourselves to have the ultimate happiness which lies beyond cyclic existence. Without renunciation we’re still looking for the happiness in cyclic existence and that happiness is always unsatisfactory. It leads us to have so much frustration and problems.

So renunciation, or the determination to be free, turns our mind to spiritual practice. That’s why it’s the first of the three principal aspects of the path. We first have to turn our mind to spiritual practice and to really wish ourselves well. Then after that we meditate to develop bodhicitta, the altruistic intention. We do that so that the path—our meditations—become the cause for full enlightenment. Then we meditate on the correct view because the correct view, the wisdom, is what actually is going to eliminate the two obscurations which keep us from being enlightened. So that’s why they are in that order.

Now, it does happen that for some very sharp-faculty disciples, some of them first generate renunciation and then they get a good understanding of emptiness and after that they realize bodhicitta. So for some people the last two can be interchanged. In that case their understanding of emptiness helps them to see that there actually is a way out of cyclic existence for themselves and others. That enhances their practice of the altruistic intention.

What are we renouncing?

Also, to clarify, when we talk about renunciation it doesn’t mean renouncing pleasure. It means renouncing suffering and the causes of suffering. That’s very important. I talked a little bit about this last time but I want to say it again. Lots of times in the West when we hear renunciation, the first principal aspect of the path, people think, “Oh, I have to give up my job. I have to give up my family. I have to give up chocolate. I have to give up my car and go live in some cave and eat nettles all the time and sleep on the rock and freeze to death.” That’s not renunciation. We can have that kind of lifestyle and still have a lot of attachment.

What we renouncing is not pleasure, we’re renouncing suffering. We’re renouncing all the suffering in cyclic existence, not just the ‘ouch’ kind of suffering—the painful suffering. The suffering that comes because our happiness doesn’t last because the pleasures we get don’t last, we’re renouncing that suffering. We’re renouncing the suffering that comes simply because we have a body and mind under the control of kleshas (the afflictions), and karma. That’s what we’re renouncing. We’re renouncing our ignorance, anger, and attachment which cause all of those sufferings.

If you understand renunciation that way then you can really see how renunciation means caring about ourselves and having compassion for ourselves. We want ourselves to be free of all those different kind of sufferings. We want ourselves to have a state of happiness that is an actual state of happiness. One that doesn’t depend on external conditions; it doesn’t fade when the sun sets, or when Prince Charming falls off his horse, or whatever it is.

Root text and outlines of the text

That’s just a little bit of introduction to the text. I’ll start explaining the actual text now. The Tibetans, whenever they teach a text, they always have the root text. This is our root text, the one written by Lama Tsongkhapa. They also always have outlines that show all the sequence of the development of thought of the text. I’m going to introduce you to the outline first and then we’ll start the text and see how some of the outlines fit in to it.

The text in general has three main outlines. The first one is the preliminaries, the second one is the main body of the text, and the third one is the conclusion of the text. You often find these in Tibetan texts. You have these three: the preliminaries, the main body, and the conclusion.

I. The preliminaries

  • a. Praise or homage
  • b. Pledge to compose
  • c. Encouragement to reader to study and practice

a. Praise or homage

Let’s go back to the first one, the preliminaries. So the preliminaries itself has three subdivisions. And the first of these is praise or offering an homage, the second is the pledge or the commitment to compose the text, and the third is encouragement to the reader to study and practice the text. So the praise, the pledge to compose, and then encouragement to the reader: those are the three subdivisions of the preliminaries.

Now let’s look at the text and then we can start go through that. The first part of the text says

I bow down to the venerable spiritual masters.

That line itself is the praise. If we take the first outline, the praise, that part of the text is, “I bow down to the venerable spiritual masters.” Let’s talk about that a little bit first.

Venerable Chodron bowing to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

By bowing, we’re showing our respect and our homage to all of the great practitioners that came before us from our own immediate teacher through the lineage of teachers back to the Buddha himself.

The purpose of bowing down to the spiritual masters is because when we begin something we want to be able to finish it. We don’t want to have any problems along the way—any obstructions to finishing it. In this case when Lama Tsongkhapa was writing the text he wanted to be able to write it and finish it without having difficulties along the way. What clears the difficulties is this: by bowing, by showing our respect and our homage to all of the great practitioners that came before us from our own immediate teacher through the lineage of teachers back to the Buddha himself.

The purpose of bowing was to eliminate any obstacles to composing the text. The reason that here prostration or homage is offered to the spiritual masters is because realizing the three principal aspects of the path is going to depend on learning them from our spiritual masters—which means learning them from the Buddha because all these teaching are tracing back to the Buddha. So this homage is a way of paying homage to the Buddha himself and showing that the teachings came from him. It also shows that our realizations of the path depend upon our studying the teachings of the Buddha and learning them from qualified teachers.

If we’re doing the regular lamrim or gradual path to enlightenment then here would come the whole explanation of:

  • how to relate to spiritual master,
  • the qualifications of a good spiritual master,
  • how to think of your spiritual masters,
  • how to behave towards them,
  • the advantages of having a good relationship; and
  • the disadvantages of having a bad one.

We won’t go into all of that right now but just to correlate this with the gradual path so that you know where we are.

To me the fact that Lama Tsongkhapa at the very beginning, he bows down to the spiritual masters, that’s also an expression of modesty on his part. I mean here he is, a highly realized teacher himself, but what does he do? He bows down to all of those who came before him. That sets a very good example for us. As spiritual practitioners to always respect and bow down to all of those practitioners who came before us by whose kindness the teachings still exist today. It’s because they studied the teachings, and practiced them, and preserved the teachings that they’ve existed for these twenty five hundred years. We can just kind of show up and stroll in and have this whole wealth of the Dharma.

Instead of seeing our present opportunity as something we’re entitled to because we’re filled with arrogance, or instead of seeing our present opportunity as something inherently existent—that it’s always been there, let’s recognize its dependent nature and our great fortune. Let’s respect all of those back to the time of Buddha upon whose kindness and wisdom we depend. For me also just saying at the beginning, “I bow down to the spiritual masters” it makes me think of, well, what would it have been like to hear this teaching directly from the Buddha? What’s contained in here is the essence of what the Buddha taught. How wonderful it would be to exist in the time when a nirmanakaya buddha was really alive and we could have those direct teachings.

b. Pledge to compose

The second part of the outline under the preliminaries was the pledge to compose. That’s the first verse here where Lama Tsongkhapa says:

I will explain as well as I am able the essence of all the teachings of the Conqueror, the path praised by the Conquerors and their spiritual children, the entrance for the fortunate ones who desire liberation.

So that verse is the pledge to compose.

Last time I was saying how when the Buddha taught in ancient India he gave different teachings to different people. Because the Buddha moved from place to place what he taught wasn’t always in sequence. He had to teach depending upon the level and disposition of the different people. It was later practitioners who then systematized the Buddha’s teachings. One way of systematizing them was done by Lama Atisha, the great Indian sage, who drew them up into the forms of the gradual path. All the Buddha’s teachings are contained in the Tripitaka—the three baskets: the vinaya, the sutra, and the abhidharma. All of the meaning in the Tripitaka can be found in the gradual path to enlightenment. This is the step by step exposition that Lama Atisha began: telling us what to practice at the beginning of the path, what to practice in the middle, what to practice at the end. The whole gradual path can be condensed into the three principal aspects of the path.

When you look at it that way, then the three principal aspects of the path is the essence of all of the vast teachings, the 84,000 teachings that Buddha Shakyamuni gave. It’s a very short prayer. What is it? Only like two and a half pages and those are small pages. But it has a very deep meaning. When Lama Tsongkhapa says, “I will explain and as well as I am able” there again, it’s an expression of his modesty. He’s not saying, “I will explain because I am a big know-it-all!” He is being modest, “as well as I am able.” In another words this is a very deep meaning that’s being explained here: it has the entirety of all the Buddha’s teachings. All the vital points are condensed here and he’s going to explain all of this in a very abbreviated way as best as he can. So he’s showing his own humility.

There’s another way of interpreting this verse where each line or each phrase is correlated with one of the three principal aspects of the path. The Tibetans love all these different correlations. It’s really neat if you think about things in this way. Here the way it’s being explained is according to the lines in the Tibetan text, the first, second and third. Here in the English translation it doesn’t always follow that sequence so a line that may come earlier in the Tibetan when it’s translated comes at the end of the sentence. But we’ll just find our way through it.

In the Tibetan the first phrase, “the essence of all the teachings of the Conqueror” is said to be correlated with renunciation, the determination to be free. Why is renunciation called “the essence of all the teachings of the Conqueror”? The essence of all the teachings of the Buddha lead to generating the ultimate aim—the ultimate renunciation—which means the Buddha’s knowledge—in the minds of the disciples. More commonly, renunciation is what sets us on the path to liberation. We look at cyclic existence with a totally clear and honest mind and see that is full of faults. There is no lasting happiness, joy, or peace to be found in cyclic existence. Being horrified at the prospect of remaining in the prison of cycle of constantly recurring difficulties and suffering under the influence of ignorance, afflictions, and karma, we make a firm determination to be free from it. This aspiration for liberation inspires us to practice the path and make Dharma a priority in our lives.

The second phrase, “the path praised by the Conquerors and their spiritual children,” that’s correlated with the bodhicitta—the altruistic intention. Bodhicitta, the path to full enlightenment, is praised by the Conquerors which means the Buddhas. They’re called Conquerors because they’ve conquered all the defilements and obscurations. That path is praised also by “their spiritual children” and here the spiritual children refers to the bodhisattvas. They’re called the children of the Buddha because as they grow up in their realization, then they will become the Buddha in the same way that children grow up and assume the position of parents and leaders of the family later on.

The path that’s praised by the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas is the bodhicitta—that loving compassionate altruistic thought that cares about all sentient beings more than we care about our own selfish happiness. You can see why that bodhicitta intention is what’s praised by all the Conquerors—the Buddhas, and their spiritual children because that’s what leads us to the full enlightenment; and that bodhicitta is what becomes the cause of the happiness for all sentient beings. When we have that love and compassion for sentient beings then we reach out to them, then what we do becomes of benefit to them. One person’s actions can have so many ripple effects and so many good consequences when it’s motivated by this altruistic intention. So that’s why it’s the path that’s praised by Conquerors and their spiritual children.

The third phrase, “the entrance for the fortunate ones who desire liberation” is correlated with the correct view. Why is the correct view the entrance for the fortunate ones who desire liberation? Well, that’s because it’s the correct view or the realization of emptiness that cuts the ignorance which is the root of cyclic existence. So that correct view is the entrance into liberation because it’s what frees us. We are called the fortunate ones because we have all the conditions necessary to practice and we have the interest in practice. Thus correct view is the entrance which leads us fortunate ones to liberation.

It’s interesting because when you see a text explained like this, phrase by phrase, and then when you read it you can see each phrase has some very deep meaning. When you meditate on it you can just read it, and you read each phrase, and you sit there and you think about the meaning of that phrase. This is the advantage of having a detailed teaching on a text because then when you see it, you can see each word is very weighty, each phrase has a real important meaning. That brings the text alive. Also then when we recite the text, it isn’t just, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. When’s this going to be over?” But it’s like, “Oh, wow. I could sit and meditate on this one paragraph for an hour or two.” It becomes really rich.

In review, the first full verse was the pledge to compose. He’s saying, “as well as I’m able, I’m going to compose this text of the three principal aspects of the path.” The three principals are

  • renunciation: the essence of all the teachings of the Conqueror
  • the altruistic intention: the path praised by the Conquerors and their spiritual children, and
  • correct view: the entrance for the fortunate ones who desire liberation.

c. Encouragement to reader to study and practice

The second verse of the root text goes under that third part of the preliminaries, the encouragement to the reader to study and practice the text. So that third part of the outline, the encouragement to the reader, is the second full verse here. That verse says

Listen with clear minds you fortunate ones, who direct your minds to the path pleasing to the Buddha and strive to make good use of leisure and opportunity without being attached to the joys of cyclic existence.

Here Lama Tsongkhapa is talking to us. It’s like he’s sitting there saying, “Okay, you guys. You know, you fortunate ones who’ve directed your minds to the path pleasing to the Buddha, listen with clear minds.” When he’s saying, “listen with clear minds,” remember last time we talked about the three faulty pots and to avoid them. The pot that’s upside down: so that’s like when we listen to teachings and we’re falling asleep, nothing goes in. The pot that’s right side up with the hole in the bottom: we don’t remember anything that’s said in the teachings, it all leeks out. And then the pot that’s right side up with no hole but it’s really dirty inside: that’s listening to the teachings with a bad motivation, with a worldly motivation. When he says, “listen with clear minds,” what he’s saying is avoid the fault of those three kinds of pots, the analogy of those three pots.

Lama Tsongkhapa is also recommending that we listen with the six recognitions that we talked about last time. Remember?

  1. seeing ourselves as a sick person in cyclic existence
  2. seeing the Buddha as the supreme doctor
  3. seeing the Dharma as the medicine to cure our illness
  4. seeing the practice of the Dharma as the actual method to cure it
  5. seeing the Buddha as the supreme guide and doctor
  6. praying for this path to be preserved and flourish.

When we listen to teachings with clear minds this also means with those six recognitions.

If we have those six recognitions then when we come to teachings we’re all perky. We want to hear the teachings and we really understand the benefit of hearing teachings. We’re really excited about it. When we have that kind of attitude then our practice gets full of energy. When we don’t have that attitude then it is like—Oh! I’ve got to go listen to teachings, my knees hurt, and it’s so boring—like that. But if we understand the advantages and benefits of teachings then we really have a lot of pleasure to listen.

Again here there are different ways to explain this verse. One way is “you fortunate ones”; so we’re the ones who have the leisure and opportunity to practice the Dharma. That leads us into the topic of precious human life which I’ll actually explain later. What it means is that we have a life with all the conditions to be able to practice. So the fortunate ones who have turned your mind to the Dharma: the “fortunate ones who direct your minds” means those of us who have turned our mind to the Dharma. Here we’re directing our minds to the path because we see its value, because we want out of all of our sufferings and their causes.

The saying regarding you ones “with clear minds” is telling us how to listen. And “the path pleasing to the Buddha” means the unerring path, the entire path. It’s emphasizing to us to not just listen to a part of the path, but listen to the whole path. So “listen with clear minds” is without the faults of the three pots and with the six recognitions. The “fortunate ones who direct your minds” is those of us who have turned our minds to the Dharma. This is “the path pleasing to the Buddha” which is the unerring path, the whole path. And then “strive to make good use of the leisure and opportunity” is our precious human life. “Without being attached to the joys of cyclic existence” are those joys that take us away from our Dharma practice.

There’s also another way in which the phrases in this verse are correlated with the three principal aspects of the path. Again this goes a little bit according to the way the lines are written in Tibetan which the translation here is slightly different. In the Tibetan the phrase, “without being attached to the joys of cyclic existence” is actually the first line of the verse. It’s correlated with renunciation. So “without being attached to the joys of cyclic existence” means that we want to give up cyclic existence. Why? Because we see that the joys of cyclic existence aren’t really joys. They are actually in the nature of suffering, they are in the nature of dukkha. So we aren’t attached to those things. We aren’t distracted by those things.

In the Tibetan the second phrase is, “make good use of leisure and fortune/opportunity.” That would be the second line in the Tibetan. This is correlated with the bodhicitta or the altruistic intention. Thus the best way to make good use of our precious human life with its leisure and opportunity to practice Dharma is to generate the altruistic intention.

The third line in the Tibetan is “the path pleasing to the Buddha” and that is associated with the correct view. And again, as in the previous verse, that path is “praised by the Conquerors” or “pleasing to the Buddha” because the correct view is what actually cuts the root of cyclic existence. If that’s a little confusing, it’s simply because the translation can’t go exactly as the Tibetan lines go because Tibetan grammar is the opposite of our Western grammar. Again that’s kind of neat, you can see when you read the verse you have the three principal aspects of the path.

Making good use of freedom and opportunity

I want to talk a little bit here, and we’ll get into it more in the next verse, about making good use of leisure and opportunity. Consider how valuable it is to have a precious human life, a human body with the mental capacities, and the environment around us with teachers and teachings and Dharma friends. All these are conditions that enable us to practice the path—so really appreciating our life and appreciating our fortune.

Sometimes we’re very shortsighted and we just look at the problems in our life: Oh, I have so much work to do. Oh! My relationship isn’t going well. Oh! This person’s mad at me. Oh! I lost my job. Oh! The economy is bad.

We can sit and bellyache for a really long time. But when we do so we waste our time. Whereas when we really recognize how fortunate we are to have a precious human life with the opportunities to practice, then the things that we usually consider problems and headaches stop appearing to our mind to be so important. Instead what’s appearing to our mind is how fortunate we are to have the ability to practice the path. That’s much more important, much more valuable than solving all of our worldly problems. Even if we solve all our worldly problems tomorrow we’ll just get a whole new batch.

Having this sense of rejoicing about our opportunity to practice the Dharma lifts us out of depression, it gives us a sense of hope and joy, and meaning and purpose in our life. It’s very important to think about this. In the next verse we’ll actually get into talking more about what the leisure and opportunities are; we’ll delineate what those are more clearly.

Questions and answers

Audience: Does being out of cyclic existence correlate with the absolute and in cyclic existence correlate with the relative? Can we actually do it in this lifetime?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): There are different ways you can answer this question. The subsidiary part of the question is, “Can we actually do it in this lifetime?” Yes, Buddha is very clear about that. Yes, we can do it in this lifetime. It might take us more than this lifetime but that’s okay even if it takes longer for still we’re going in a valuable direction. However long it takes it’s okay. With a precious human life we can do it in this lifetime if we have all the conditions together.

Now in some ways if you talk about being in cyclic existence, you could say that’s the relative in the sense that many of the conventional truths are associated with the cyclic existence. You could say being out of cyclic existence or nirvana is the ultimate because nirvana is actually an ultimate truth. Nirvana is the emptiness of inherent existence of the minds of those who are free from cyclic existence.

Here let me just say a little bit on translation because you used the word absolute and I was using the word ultimate. It’s one of those words in the Pali or Sanskrit that doesn’t have a really good English equivalent. The reason that I don’t use absolute is because we tend to think of, when we say “the absolute truth,” as something independent, unrelated, out there existing on its own. Emptiness is not independent and unrelated. Emptiness is not conditioned. It doesn’t change. But you have emptiness because you have objects that are empty. You can’t have ultimate truths—the emptiness, without having conventional truths—the conventionally existent objects. Emptiness isn’t some kind of truth that is like out there in some other realm. Emptiness is right here in the things that we encounter every day. Emptiness is their ultimate nature.

We have a table here. Together with the table is the emptiness of inherent existence of the table. Those two don’t exist independent of each other. It’s not like the emptiness, the ultimate nature of the table is in some other universe or some other realm. It’s right here with the table. I think when we think like that, then it makes emptiness very immediate. It emphasizes to us to try and see the emptiness of everything we are encountering in our life moment by moment.

Audience: Is that you mean when we were talking about ultimate or absolute. Because the word absolute comes up every now and then and a lama was just visiting and I had some confusion about what he was trying to explain about the absolute.

VTC: Like as I said, I don’t use the word absolute because it gives us this false notion of some other something. But if you talk about the conventional and the ultimate, those two exist completely intermeshed. One can’t exist without the other.

Audience: Okay. I can see that. But what about being free of cyclic existence? Is that a different state of mind or is it just seeing clearly this conventional?

VTC: No, being free of cyclic existence, the state of being free, arhatship, that is a state of mind in which all the causes of cyclic existence have been ceased in such a way that they can no longer return. So being out of cyclic existence, nirvana, is actually the Third Noble Truth. It is a state of mind, it’s not a place. It’s not two clouds up and turn left. It’s a state of mind. And it’s a state of mind brought about by having realized emptiness because that realization of the ultimate mode of existence cuts the ignorance that projects false modes of existence onto ourselves and everything we encounter.

When we’re projecting this false mode of existence on to everything, then we make everything very solid, everything very real. Then I’m a real me and I want real happiness. And this thing is giving me real happiness. And this guy’s getting in the way of my happiness. Everything becomes very solid. Then we get attached to the external things that we think are going to make us happy. We get angry at whatever interferes with our happiness. We create karma by all of that and then that karma keeps us cycling in cyclic existence again and again. Being out of cyclic existence means stopping that whole dysfunctional cycle, cutting it.

Audience: What is cyclic existence?

VTC: There are various ways to talk about it. One way is having a mind and body under the influence of kleshas (afflictions, or disturbing attitudes and negative emotions), and karma. When they say, “What is cyclic existence?” these aggregates—our body and mind—is cyclic existence. That’s actually very important because lots of times we think cyclic existence is the environment, like “I’m in cyclic existence. I want to get out of cyclic existence.” So if I go from the city to the monastery then I’m getting out of cyclic existence. Or I’m getting out of cyclic existence if I go to nirvana which is few realms up in the sky somewhere. No, that’s not it. When we think like that we’re still holding on to the idea of solid me based on this contaminated body and contaminated mind. If we want to be free of cyclic existence, it means shedding the contaminated five aggregates. We do that by freeing our mind from the causes of cyclic existence, the afflictions and the karma. We free our mind by realizing emptiness—because the way the wisdom perceiving emptiness sees things is exactly the opposite to the way ignorance sees things. When we generate the wisdom realizing emptiness it directly contradicts the ignorance and so it’s able to overcome it. Samsara isn’t our environment. Samsara is our contaminated body and mind.

Audience: But it isn’t really the body and mind in itself. It’s the way we perceive it, right? So if you can be free of the conditions or free of seeing that way you still have the same body and mind but you’re free from it.

VTC: Well, this is an interesting thing. It depends which school of tenets you’re talking about. Actually if we, let’s say perceive the empty nature of our body. Let’s say you have a bodhisattva on the path of seeing who has direct perception into emptiness. That bodhisattva at that time because they are on the very high level, actually when they are reborn they have a body that looks like a body of flesh and bones, but it’s not. Or an arhat who is in nirvana has what’s called a mental body; a body that’s not made out of flesh and blood like this body.

So in one way in response to your question: if you see the emptiness of the body. For example, like if you have a normal person. Like if I’m sitting here and I realize emptiness. I still have my ordinary flesh and blood body. I’m going to relate to my body in a very different way if I realize its emptiness. I’m not going to be so attached. But if I am on the bodhisattva path and after that realization I come back again to continue practicing, then with that rebirth your body may look like a regular body but it is not. Your body actually changes. An arhat’s body and Buddha’s body are not bodies out of flesh and blood—this is according to the Mahayana tenets. Different schools of Buddhism may have different views of this. In fact they definitely—not “may”—they definitely do have different views of this.

Audience: But you would say that the basic emptiness teaching applies to all the different schools?

VTC: Pretty much. There are some differences because in the different tenet systems there are different views.

Audience: Even of the emptiness itself?

VTC: Yes, even of emptiness itself. Actually I think that’s kind of exciting when you have different views of emptiness because it makes you think more. The more deeply we think, Is it like this? Or is it like that? What does it really mean?, the more we think then the clearer our understanding of emptiness comes. In the Tibetan system there is one system of teaching called grub mtha—it means philosophical tenets. The Tibetans have broken down the tenets into four systems and they have different subcategories and everything. When you study it in Tibetan system, looking at these four different views even of the emptiness itself and of the path and things like that, it helps you really think about how things exist. Your mind goes, Yes, well yes. That’s how I do look at things. And that, well, I can understand that too. But what really is right? And how do things really exist? Studying those four tenet systems helps you gradually come to a more and more refined view of emptiness.

Audience: And eventually, would you say, you experience it more than you try to understand it?

VTC: Oh yes. Oh yes. You’re aiming for the experience. But to get the experience you have to understand it correctly. If you don’t understand it correctly then people think emptiness just means having a blank mind, not thinking about anything, and you can meditate on that for eons and eons but you don’t get liberated.

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.