Bodhisattva paths and grounds

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Part of a series of teachings on Essence of Refined Gold by the Third Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Sonam Gyatso. The text is a commentary on Songs of Experience by Lama Tsongkhapa.

  • Explanation on the levels that a bodhisattva progresses towards enlightenment
  • Five bodhisattva paths
  • Ten bodhisattva grounds or bhumis

Essence of Refined Gold 20 (download)

Before we start the actual teaching let’s cultivate our motivation. Let’s rejoice at having our precious human life with all the opportunities to practice the Dharma. We don’t know how long we’ll have this life. It could end very quickly, we have no idea. It’s important while we are still alive to make our life meaningful because at the time when we die our body doesn’t come with us, our friends and relatives don’t come with us, our money and possessions don’t come with us, our status and reputation don’t come with us. So it’s extremely important to do now what is important that does come with us at the time of death; and that is our karma and the mental habits that we have cultivated. One of the best mental habits to cultivate is the bodhicitta, the loving compassionate aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. Let’s generate that now, let’s habituate our mind with that aspiration, and live according to it as much as we can. Then, in that way our life will be meaningful. We’ll have a god future life. And we’ll be able to progress along the path to full enlightenment as we continue on and practice in future lives. So take a moment to cultivate the bodhicitta.

I just wanted to review a little bit some of the teachings that we had last time. I think many of you haven’t heard things like this before—wisdom in this level of depth. Last time we talked about the paths of the hearers and the solitary realizers, those practitioners who aim for liberation from samsara; they’re not aiming for full buddhahood but for liberation from samsara. We were talking about their paths in the context of the Sangha Jewel. We’ve been talking about refuge, so the third jewel that we take refuge in is the Sangha. Hearing about the realizations and levels of practice of the hearers and solitary realizers gives us some idea of the Sangha that we take refuge in. Then we’ll also talk about the bodhisattva paths and grounds because that will also give us some idea of the Sangha that we take refuge in. But it also gives us an idea of what we will become, what we want to train our mind in, so that we can become and actualize ourselves.

Let’s start with the hearers and solitary realizers. I started out last time explaining how there’s one explanation of how they progress through their paths that’s given in the Sanskrit tradition and another way that’s given in the Pali tradition. So I’ll review the way in the Sanskrit tradition first, okay?

The Sanskrit tradition explanation of the paths of hearers and solitary realizers

Here, the afflictions that are eliminated by those beings—the hearers and solitary realizers—they’re basically divided into nine levels; and then each of those levels has eight grades. The nine levels correspond with the nine realms.

The first realm [of the nine realms] is the desire realm. The next four are the four jhanas, or the four form-realm meditative stabilizations. And then the last four (in other words numbers 5-9) are the meditative stabilizations or the meditative absorptions of the formless realm. Then each of those [nine realms] has nine grades of affliction. And these grades of affliction are measured in terms of how ingrained they are in the mind. Okay? So what one is doing as one’s passing through the stages on the hearer and solitary realizer path is they are like washing a cloth and, you know, washing out these different grades, okay? So there are 81 grades altogether—nine times nine.

Now, there are four basic stages that the people on this path [of hearer or solitary realizer] go through. The first is called stream-entry; the second, once-returner; the third is non-returner; and the fourth is arhat. And each one of these, in turn, has an uninterrupted path and then a liberated path. The uninterrupted path is where that person’s wisdom realizing emptiness is battling that level of affliction, and the afflictions are going to lose the battle but the battle is going on during the uninterrupted path. And then immediately that person passes on to what’s called the liberated path, where they have succeeded in eliminating that level of defilements. Both of those paths are realizing emptiness directly. It’s just that one is in the process of fighting the afflictions [the person on the uninterrupted path]; and the other one has already succeeded in eliminating that level of afflictions [the person on the liberated path]. The person on that level [of the liberated path] has those true cessations. True cessations means the elimination forever of that layer of afflictions in such a way that they can never come back again.

Approachers and abiders in stream-entry (and acquired afflictions)

The person who is approaching or entering the stream-enterer [level], they are eliminating the acquired afflictions. The acquired afflictions are those that we’ve learned from different philosophies, incorrect philosophies, incorrect psychologies. They’re a much grosser level of afflictions, so that’s why they’re eliminated first. And then, somebody who’s abiding in the level of stream-entry has eliminated those acquired afflictions. Okay? Then, the person keeps practicing, and again, they’re always meditating on emptiness. Their realization is of emptiness.

Somebody who has attained stream-entry, who is an abider in stream-entry, at most will be reborn seven more times as humans or as gods before they attain full arhatship. That is, if they don’t practice in that very life and continue to go on to once-returner and non-returner and arhatship in that same life, okay?

Once-returner approachers and abiders—and innate afflictions (levels 1-6)

When the practitioner is being an approacher to once-returner is when they’re on the uninterrupted path and they are in the process of eliminating the first six grades of the innate afflictions. Okay? So the first six of the 81 [grades of innate afflictions] they are in the process of eliminating. And these are all afflictions of the desire realm. Because remember, the desire realm has nine [grades of innate afflictions]; and then each of the four form realms and four formless realms each have nine [grades of innate afflictions], also. Okay? [To recap, there are nine realms; and each realm has nine grades of innate afflictions for a total of 81 grades of innate afflictions to be eliminated in all.] Once that person has eliminated those first six levels of the innate afflictions, they have those true cessations, and then they are an abider in once-returner.

A once-returner has eliminated those first six levels [of the innate affliction] in the desire realm; and they will only be reborn a maximum of one more time in the desire realm. They won’t be reborn anymore in the lower realms of the desire realm. So their rebirth would probably be as a human being, maybe as a god in the desire realm, something like that. But they’re reborn only one more time because of the depth of their realization.

Non-returner approacher and abider—and innate afflictions (levels 7-9)

The approacher to a non-returner is eliminating the seventh, eighth, and ninth level of [innate] afflictions in the desire realm. When they’ve succeeded in eliminating them, they pass on to the liberated path of the non-returner and they are called an abider in non-returning. They’re called non-returners because they will never be reborn again in the desire realm. They may be reborn in another realm, or in that very life they may go right directly on and keep practicing and become arhats in that life.

Approacher and abider in arhatship—and innate afflictions (levels 10-81)

Somebody who is an approacher to arhatship, they are in the process of eliminating the tenth to the eighty-first levels of innate affliction. So they’re meditating on emptiness, using that realization of emptiness to cleanse their mind of these remaining 72 levels of affliction. When they have been eliminated, then all the afflictions have been eliminated and that person becomes an abider in arhatship. Now that person is totally free of cyclic existence. They’ve eliminated the afflictive obscurations, the afflictions and their seeds and the karma that keeps us revolving in cyclic existence.

However, according to the Sanskrit tradition, they have not eliminated the cognitive obscurations. So the subtle latencies of the afflictions and the dualistic appearance, those have not yet been eliminated, so they aren’t fully enlightened Buddhas. But they are free from cyclic existence and are no longer reborn under the influence of afflictions and karma.

The Pali tradition explanation of the paths of hearers and solitary realizers

Two sets of five fetters to be eliminated

Let’s look at how the Pali tradition describes how they progress through that—it’s a slightly different approach. But it’s very interesting because it pinpoints more specifically some of the fetters of some of the specific afflictions that are eliminated in each level as the Pali tradition describes this progression.

For somebody who has become a stream-enterer, they have broken through the conventional appearances, they see the unconditioned, they see nirvana, they’ve realized selflessness, and they have eliminated the first three fetters.

The first of three fetters: the first one is the view of the perishing aggregates. In Tibetan this one is called jigta. You may have heard me mention it before. This is grasping onto a self that exists within the aggregates—that’s how it is defined in the Pali tradition.

The second fetter that a stream-enterer has eliminated is doubt. They have been able to eliminate the view of the perishing aggregates because they have seen the truth, the ultimate nature—so that building up of a false ‟I” and ‟mine” has been eliminated. Doubt has been able to be eliminated because they’ve had this glimpse of nirvana—and so they don’t have doubt anymore about the path, or about selflessness, or about the ultimate nature. This is because they have experienced it from their own direct experience.

Also they’ve also eliminated the view holding bad ethics and modes of conduct as supreme. That’s a view where people are very confused about what is good ethical conduct and what isn’t, and what is the path and what isn’t. For example, people who do very extreme ascetic practices, or who walk through fire, or who bathe in water, thinking that all that is going to purify their negative karma, okay? So the view that holds that has been eliminated because, again, that person has seen nirvana directly. Now they have full conviction of what the path is; that it’s the three higher trainings and the eightfold noble path. Again, the wrong view of the path and modes of conduct has been eliminated.

After they have eliminated that [fetter], then they that stay in that realization of nirvana for some time; and then they come out because they are still stream-enterers. They have entered the stream of the Dharma but their realization of nirvana isn’t long-term. Then they come out of that realization; and they continue practicing, deepening their samadhi [concentration], deepening their wisdom. Later on they again break through and have another direct perception of nirvana. At that time they don’t eliminate any new afflictions but their attachment to sensual desire and their ill-will (or their malice)—those two mental factors—have radically decreased. When they come out of that realization of nirvana then they are abiding on the stage of once-returner. Again, they will only be reborn one more time in the desire realm.

Somebody who continues in that very life to meditate—because, you know, one person may go through all these stages in one life, another person may take many lives to go through them. Okay? So, somebody then meditates and they realize nirvana again, and they continue to use that to cleanse their mind of the fetters, then when they attain non-returner. Now they have eliminated completely the sensual desire and the ill will or the malice. Those thoughts never again come in their mind. Wouldn’t that be nice? No more attachment to sense desire; no more ill will or malice or anger? Wow, that would be great!

So they become non-returners. They’re called non-returners because they are no longer born in the desire realm. They may progress onto arhatship in that life, or if they don’t, then in their next life they are reborn in one of the five pure lands in the fourth jhana. In the fourth form realm there are five pure lands, and those are reserved completely for non-returners and then, of course, the arhats that they become when they are born in those pure lands. Those are pure lands for people who are practicing the hearer and solitary realizer path. Those are different than the pure lands that the bodhisattvas go to. To be a non-returner you have eliminated the first five fetters. So for a non-returner they have eliminated (1) the view of the perishing aggregates, (2) deluded doubt, (3) the wrong view about ethical conduct (about ethics and modes of conduct), and (4) they’ve eliminated sense desire, and (5) also ill will.

That non-returner continues on practicing. When they have completely eliminated the next five fetters they reach arhatship. So there are five more fetters that have been completely eliminated then. The first one of these is called ‟desire for existence in the form realm” and the second is ‟desire for existence in the formless realm.” So they’ve given up all that subtle attachment to those rebirths in cyclic existence. They’ve already given up previously the attachment to be reborn in the desire realm, so here they’re giving up attachment to be reborn in the upper realms.

The third fetter that they have abandoned, just at the time of arhatship, is conceit. This is a special kind of conceit that’s called ‟the conceit of I am.” This one, I don’t know about you, but you get that sense—just that conceit inside of ourselves of ‟I am,” ‟Here I am!” You know, big me, “I exist!” Like, we’re so important because we exist. Yes? So, the ‟conceit of I am” Then the fourth fetter is restlessness; it’s a very subtle restlessness. And then the fifth one is the ignorance of the four noble truths. That’s been completely eliminated at that stage of arhatship.

Nirvana with and without remainder in the Pali tradition

In the Pali tradition that person attains while they’re still in that same lifetime—what they attain is called ‟the nirvana with remainder.” They’re no longer born in cyclic existence under the influence of afflictions and karma, so that’s why it’s called nirvana. But it’s with remainder, because they still have the remainder of the polluted aggregates that they were born with. For example, let’s say it was a human being who attained arhatship. Well, the body that he or she has is the ordinary body that we have that was produced by afflictions and karma. Okay? So they still have the remainder of that body even though their mind has attained arhatship. Yes? So that’s why it’s called nirvana with remainder.

Then, when that arhat dies, they attain what is called ‟nirvana without remainder.” The polluted aggregates have ceased completely at that time. Then, within the Pali tradition there is some discussion of what happens at that point. The Buddha didn’t speak about it real clearly—about what happens when you attain nirvana without remainder. Some people say that the polluted aggregates have been eliminated so there’s only the nirvana that remains—there’s no continuity of mind. But other people say that there is a continuity of mind (or citta, the Pali and Sanskrit word for mind). You have people like, there’s a very well-known Thai meditator who passed away maybe in the 1950s or the 1960s. His name was Ajahn Mun [Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta Thera, 1870–1949] and you can read his biography; it’s really quite inspiring. When he was meditating, through his own experience, he realized that even after an arhat dies there is the consciousness that remains. Anyway, so that’s how you would go through these stages according to the Pali tradition, eliminating those ten fetters altogether. 

The bodhisattva path

Progressing through the five paths of the bodhisattva

Now what I want to do is talk a little bit about the bodhisattva path. We’ve talked about the hearers and the solitary realizers. The bodhisattvas do things a little bit differently. First of all, their motivation is different. Whereas somebody in the hearer or solitary realizer path, their motivation is to be liberated for themselves; a bodhisattva is trying to attain full enlightenment. This is because when you have full enlightenment you have many more abilities than you do in arhatship. Also for the bodhisattvas, their whole focus is on being of the greatest benefit to sentient beings and on liberating sentient beings from samsara. So they want to have all these extra abilities that you get with full enlightenment because those extra abilities enable you to do a lot more work to benefit sentient beings.

Those on the bodhisattva path start out with the motivation of bodhicitta, not just with the motivation for their own enlightenment. And then, there are five bodhisattva paths. There are actually five hearer and solitary realizer paths also, according to the Sanskrit tradition, but I didn’t explain those because I didn’t want to confuse you anymore than you already are! You see how compassionate I am? (L)

The bodhisattva has five paths. They enter the path of accumulation when they have spontaneous bodhicitta. So that means anytime you see a sentient being, no matter who it is, your instantaneous reaction is, ‟I want to attain enlightenment for their benefit.” Thus you go around all day and you’re feeling this incredible interconnectedness with all sentient beings. Your whole focus, your whole thing whenever you see any sentient being, you know, is you’re not judging them and you’re not thinking of what they can do for you, and blah blah blah. But your only thought is, ‟How can I benefit them?” And specifically, ‟How can I get them out of this mess of cyclic existence?” It’s not, ‟How can I benefit them by giving them chocolate brownies,” you know, or giving them a job, or something like that. I mean, bodhisattvas do that as well, but the real way that they want to benefit is to lead sentient beings out of cyclic existence.

Again, they enter the path of accumulation when they have that spontaneous bodhicitta. It’s called the path of accumulation because they’re trying to accumulate a lot of positive potential or merit. When their meditation on emptiness gets to a point—and here I’m talking about somebody who’s entering the bodhisattva path freshly from being an ordinary being. When their understanding of emptiness reaches the state of insight where it’s not [yet] a direct perception but it’s a union of serenity and special insight, a unity of shamatha and vipassana on emptiness. so there’s still a very subtle veil in the mind that is preventing the person from seeing emptiness directly. So it’s a full conceptual understanding of emptiness and it has a very strong impact on the mind even though it’s not direct. It’s at that point, when a person has that, that they go from path of accumulation to path of preparation.

Then they keep accumulating a lot of merit, because one thing on a bodhisattva path, you need to accumulate so much more merit than you do on the hearer or solitary realizer path. I mean, like really a lot more, like three countless great eons more! So they keep on doing all the practices of the six far-reaching attitudes to accumulate merit, especially the first four of the six for those are the ones done to accumulate merit. When they get to a point in their meditation on emptiness where they perceive emptiness directly, then that is called the path of seeing. It’s so called because they see emptiness directly. The path of preparation was so called because they’re preparing to see emptiness directly. This third path, the path of seeing, they see it directly.

Then the fourth path that they continue onto when they’ve eliminated certain levels of obscurations is called the path of meditation. Remember that meditation has the same verbal root as to habituate or to familiarize. What they’re doing on the path of meditation is really familiarizing their minds very much with the realization of emptiness and using it to cleanse the mind. This means they are in the process of eliminating all of the afflictions, not only the afflictive obscurations but also the cognitive obscurations. Remember that the afflictive obscurations are the afflictions and their seeds and the karma that causes us to take rebirth. But then the cognitive obscurations are the subtle stains or the subtle latencies of ignorance, anger, attachment, jealousy, laziness, pride, all these things. So they are eliminating those subtle latencies and the subtle dualistic appearance—or appearance or perception of inherent existence that they bring. When all of that has been completely eliminated, then they attain the path of no more learning—so called because you’re a Buddha! It’s no more learning and no more training; you don’t have to train your mind anymore, you’re a fully enlightened Buddha. Those are the five bodhisattva paths.

Ten bodhisattva grounds or bhumis

There is also a teaching on the ten bodhisattva grounds. (The Sanskrit word is bhumi and the Tibetan word is sa.) The ten bhumis or the ten grounds are all realizations of emptiness. They’re called grounds because they act as a support for the good qualities that are actualized on those stages. For the ten grounds, the first ground occurs on the path of seeing. Then pretty much the other nine occur on the path of meditation. Let me tell you the ten grounds—the names are very nice. They’re inspiring.

The first bhumi is Very Joyful. They’re very joyful bodhisattvas. He or she is on the first bhumi, first ground, and the path of seeing. They particularly attain a very good practice of generosity on that ground. Then the second ground is called Stainless, and they attain a great attainment in terms of ethical conduct—the second of the far-reaching attitudes. The third ground is called the Luminous and their specialty is patience or fortitude. The fourth ground is called the Radiant, and I bet you can guess what their specialty is. The specialty of the Radiant one is joyous effort. Then the fifth ground is called Very Difficult to Overcome, and they attain a very special level of meditative stabilization. The sixth ground is called Approaching, because they are approaching the qualities of the Buddha, and their specialty is wisdom. So those are the six far-reaching attitudes [of generosity, ethical conduct, patience, joyous effort, meditative stabilization, and wisdom.]

But there is also a description of ten far-reaching attitudes. When we have the description of ten, the last four, if you’re going to talk about six, they’re included in the sixth one. But when you expand it out to ten then they come out and they each, of course, have their own ground that they attain a special strength at. So the seventh ground bodhisattva is called Gone Afar—that person specializes in method (or skillful means).

The eighth ground is called the Immovable, and their speciality is—the Tibetan term is monlam and there’s not a good English translation of that. Sometimes it’s translated as ‟prayer” but that’s not very good because it’s not really a prayer. They’re actually developing very strong aspirations. The Chinese, when they translate it, translate it as ‟vow” because the aspiration is so strong that it’s almost like a vow that you’re going to do something. So it’s a very strong wish, a strong aspiration. That’s the eighth ground.

The ninth ground is called Good Intelligence, and their specialty is power (or influence)—which is very important if you’re going to guide sentient beings. Then the tenth ground bodhisattva, they’re called the Cloud of Dharma because from them a rain of the excellent Dharma falls. They’re so close to Buddhahood that they’re kind of constantly giving teachings, like there’s always a shower. Their specialty is exalted wisdom. It’s called yeshe in Tibetan. 

Bodhisattva’s qualities and the ten bhumis

Beginning at the first bhumi, at the first ground, a bodhisattva—because at this point they’ve realized emptiness directly—they also have full concentration. Then they get certain clairvoyant powers which enable them to be of great benefit to sentient beings. So there are twelve special powers that they get at the level of the Very Joyful, the first level of the bodhisattva.

The first quality—and this is very inspiring when you think that there are people who actually have these abilities—is that they can see a hundred buddhas. I would be satisfied with one, you know! But they’re capable of seeing a hundred. They receive the blessings or the inspiration of a hundred buddhas. They’re able to go to a hundred buddha lands. The buddhas have different buddha lands throughout the universe where they teach the Dharma, and these bodhisattvas are able to go to a hundred of them. They’re able to illuminate a hundred lands. So, through the power of their loving kindness and concentration, they illuminate a hundred lands. The fifth quality is they’re able to vibrate a hundred worldly realms. I hope that doesn’t mean earthquakes! But a special kind of vibration, I guess. The sixth is they’re able to live for a hundred eons. The seventh is they’re able to see with true wisdom the past and the future for a hundred eons.

Now somebody’s going to say, ‟Well, if they can see the future, does that mean that everything is predestined already?” No, it doesn’t mean things are predestined. It just means that they have a very deep understanding of cause and effect. So they can make pretty good guesses about what kind of effects are going to arise soon by looking at the causes that are prominent right now. But things are not predestined. We know that. It’s like, you may know somebody very well and you know their habits very well, and so you feel like you could predict what’s going to happen to them, but there’s still the chance that that doesn’t happen. Yes? Just because you know somebody well, then having a prediction doesn’t make for sure it’s necessarily going to happen. Again, things are not predestined.

Then the eighth quality is they’re able to enter into and rise from a hundred meditative stabilizations. Now this is an incredible skill. When you think of the depth of meditative stabilization—they can enter into it and leave it very quickly; and a hundred different kinds of meditative stabilizations. When the Buddha was teaching the Heart Sutra he was in the meditative stabilization called ‟The Countless Aspects of Phenomena.” So there are different kinds of meditative stabilizations.

Then the ninth quality is that the first-ground bodhisattva, the Very Joyful, is able to open a hundred different doors of doctrine. A door of the doctrine is a kind of teaching. It’s part of their skillful means to be able to teach in a certain way that corresponds to the interests and the disposition of the various sentient beings that they’re teaching.

The tenth is they’re able to ripen a hundred sentient beings. Ripen means that they get us to the point where we can have realizations. Right now we’re a little bit green. Our minds are not ripe at all. We hear the Dharma and our minds are resistant and everything else that goes along with that. But when you have a ripe mind then you just really take in the Dharma and you’re ripe to gain the realizations. So these bodhisattvas can ripen a hundred sentient beings. I hope they experiment on me and on you, too, because we need ripening, don’t we? And if they can do it, may they help us!

The eleventh quality is they can emanate a hundred emanations of their own body. This is very useful when you want to benefit sentient beings, to be able to send out an emanation. Then the twelfth is they’re able to cause each of these hundred bodies to be surrounded by a hundred other bodhisattvas. So they’re in the process of teaching the Dharma and creating their own pure lands where they have bodhisattvas coming in.

We can see from this that these bodhisattvas, how they practice and the qualities that they gain. It’s really quite amazing. It comes not only because they’ve realized emptiness, but because of the various levels of samadhi (or concentration) that they’ve developed and how skilled they are in samadhi. It’s not just like you gain serenity and that’s it. No, there are various levels after serenity of deepening the level of concentration and deepening your ability to go in and out of concentration. Then you have to do all these practices of training how to make a hundred emanations. It’s not just like it pops into your mind and you’re able to do it. You have to train in making emanations and train in going to the buddha lands and these kinds of things. These bodhisattvas have done that kind of training and so they have these abilities. And they gain the abilities not because they’re infatuated with having clairvoyant powers and doing, you know, ‟supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” things. That’s not why they do it. But they gain these powers because their whole focus is on being of the greatest service to sentient beings, and these special abilities enable them to be of that kind of great service. That’s why they do it. So that’s the bodhisattva path.

There’s a little thing here that Nagarjuna described because he talked about these various bodhisattva grounds in Precious Garland. He talked a little bit about why they got their own name, so I thought I would just read it to you. The Very Joyful, the first bodhisattva, is so called because that bodhisattva is rejoicing all the time—so they rejoice at their own virtue and others’ virtue. The second one is called the Stainless because their ten virtuous actions of body, speech, and mind are completely stainless—they have no ethical downfalls at all. The third one is called the Luminous because the pacifying light of wisdom arises—so they get a certain kind of wisdom that is luminous in their mind, so to speak. The fourth-ground bodhisattva is called the Radiant because the light of true wisdom arises and it radiates out. The fifth-bhumi bodhisattva is called Very Difficult to Overcome since demons and any kind of interfering forces find it very difficult to conquer a bodhisattva with that kind of realization. The sixth one is called Approaching because they are approaching the qualities of the Buddha. The seventh is called Gone Afar because the number of their qualities has increased so much—it has ‟gone afar” from what it used to be. The eighth level bodhisattva is the Immovable, and it’s because through non-conceptual wisdom they are immovable; and the spheres of their body, speech, and minds’ activities are inconceivable. The ninth ground is called Good Intelligence because, like a regent, they have attained correct individual realization and therefore have good intelligence. Then the tenth-ground bodhisattva is the Cloud of Dharma because the rain of the excellent Dharma falls, like teaching sentient beings.

Okay, so that’s when we take refuge in the Sangha, yes? These are some of the beings that we’re taking refuge in: the hearers and the solitary realizers who are practicing with those aryas. An arya is somebody who has realized emptiness directly, non-conceptually. And the bodhisattvas—the bodhisattva aryas in particular—are Sangha refuge that we’re taking refuge in. That’s very helpful to know because then when you take refuge, you know who you’re looking to for inspiration and guidance and instruction. We’re really taking refuge in beings who have those attainments and who therefore are perfectly qualified to lead us to gain them as well.

Questions and answers

So, there are a few questions that I have from last time.

Audience: You talk about hearers and solitary realizers removing layers of ignorance according to the Sanskrit tradition. What level of emptiness do they have?

Venerable Chodron: Well, according to the Sanskrit tradition, anybody who is an arya has realized the emptiness of inherent existence of all phenomena of persons and of all other phenomena. So in the Sanskrit tradition, at least according to the Prasangika viewpoint, they realize emptiness— and everybody, all the aryas, are realizing the same emptiness. According to some of the other philosophical schools they are realizing different levels of selflessness.

Audience: When someone attains the path of non-returner, they do not take rebirth in the desire realm again. How is it that the Buddha’s original followers were said to attain arhatship during and after the Buddha’s lifetime if they were in the desire realm in this world?

Venerable Chodron: Well, that’s because you can go from stream-entry to once-returner to non-returner to arhatship all in one life on the basis of a human body. So those great disciples at the time of the Buddha started out like ordinary beings. But because they had so many good seeds from their previous lives, then when they met the Buddha and heard just a little bit of teaching—like the first five disciples, you know? They right away, very quickly after that first teaching, became stream-enterers, and then once-returners and non-returners and arhats, all in that same life. So somebody can do all four in one life. But if you don’t, because maybe you realize stream-entry when you’re 102, so you don’t have a lot of time left to do the other ones! So then, you pass away, you take another birth, and then you continue on the path after that.

Audience: If I heard you correctly, you mentioned that those on the hearers and solitary realizer path desire to be born in the form and formless realms of the gods, seeing that as preferable to a human birth in the desire realm because of the more conducive circumstances for developing single-pointed concentration.

Venerable Chodron: Actually, that’s not what I said, or if I said it, that’s not what I meant. They are practicing as human beings, okay? If they’re able to eliminate the attachments to the desire realm then they automatically take rebirth in the form or formless realms, where they can continue practicing. But that’s particularly helpful for the non-returner because then they go to those pure abodes in the fourth jhana. Okay? This person is saying that they always thought that the precious human life was very conducive for practice because we have the appropriate balance of suffering and happiness. We have suffering to remind us that we’re in samsara and we have enough happiness to not be overwhelmed by our suffering. And so yes, the precious human life is considered very fortunate and very auspicious by the Pali and Sanskrit tradition alike. So people are not just aiming to be born in the form and formless realm absorptions, because if you are born in the form and formless realm absorptions but your wisdom isn’t strong then it’s very easy to get stuck there—just meditating in these very blissful states. So you have to have a very strong determination to be free of samsara so that even if you attain these levels of concentration, you use them to develop your insight. Particularly, the jhanas are more helpful to develop the insight. With the four formless realms—the concentration is so deep and the mind so refined that they can’t really do insight meditation there, so it’s not very conducive. I hope that clears that up.

Just remember, in the bodhisattva vehicle they talk about being born in pure lands—those are different pure lands than the ones that the hearer and solitary realizer non-returners are born into. This is because a bodhisattva pure land are usually established by particular buddhas; and then if you’re born there, you can continue your practice very well. So for example, there’s Vajrayogini pure land which is called Og-min or Akanistha, which is different that the Akanistha in the form realm.

Then there’s Amitabha’s pure realm, which is called Sukhavati (or Dewachen in Tibetan). Amitabha’s pure land is kind of special because he made it so that even if you don’t have deep realizations you can be reborn there. Some of the other pure lands, you need to realize emptiness or you need very high-level realizations to be reborn there, because those buddhas only teach the arya bodhisattvas. But in Amitabha’s pure land, even as an ordinary being you can be born there. But it’s not just a question of reciting Namo Amituofo or reciting Amitabha’s name like a tape recorder. It’s a thing of having a lot of having a lot of faith, and not blind faith but understanding faith in the Dharma; having concentration so that when you’re imagining Amitabha or reciting Amitabha’s name, your mind is focused single-pointedly on that. You also have to have some ethical conduct and keep precepts. There’s no way that somebody who is an expert in creating negative karma is going to get born in a pure land unless they do something to start purifying their negative karma. So that’s why Amitabha made some vows to particularly help those people with very negative karma, you know, help them to purify it so they can be reborn in his pure land. Then also having some understanding or some level of realization of bodhicitta is very helpful for being reborn in Amitabha’s pure land as well.

In your meditation, again, review these different stages. Start with the hearers and think of their realizations. As you do let your mind get really happy. Think what it would be like to be eliminating these different layers of afflictions—how wonderful that would be, and what your mind could possibly be like. Like, what would it be like not to get angry anymore? What would it be like not to have a restless mind anymore? Also do some meditation contemplating the bodhisattvas’ qualities and what it would be like to have this direct perception of emptiness and these twelve special abilities. By the way, I forgot to mention that these twelve special abilities increase with each bhumi, with each ground.

On the first ground, they have a hundred of those twelve qualities. On the second ground they have 1,000—they are able to do each one of them 1,000 times. On the third ground they can do each one 100,000 times; on the fourth ground, 110 million times; on the fifth, a thousand ten million times; on the sixth, a hundred thousand ten million; on the seventh, a hundred thousand ten trillion; on the eighth, a number equal to the particles of a billion worlds; on the ninth, a number equal to the particles of ten million billion worlds; and on the tenth, a number equal to the particles of an inexpressible number of an inexpressible number of buddha lands!

If it sounds kind of like too much, but just think what the capacity of our mind is. Yes? When there are no impediments on the mind, when the obscurations have been eliminated, then these qualities are there and we can exercise them. When you think, first of all thinking that there’s beings in this universe that have those abilities, you know, it’s just like, wow! You know everything isn’t hopeless, like the 6 o’clock news wants to make us think. It’s like, all these incredible holy beings out there, who are just doing anything they possibly can to guide us to enlightenment. Yes? It really uplifts our mind. And then when we think of it and we think of our own potential, what we can become, and you think, ‟Wow, it’s possible for me to eliminate those afflictions and gain these abilities and have that kind of love and compassion?” Then it gives you a whole different vision of who you are. Then when you think, ‟I have this incredible ability to become a bodhisattva, to become a Buddha, with these abilities—and here I am, worrying about, you know, if I’m going to lose my job.” Or, “Here I am worrying about if somebody likes me or doesn’t like me. Or, “Here I am getting upset because the person I live with didn’t take out the garbage.” When we start to think about what we use our human energy thinking about, compared to the potential we have, it just gives us great inspiration to drop all that stuff that we spend so much time making ourselves miserable over.

You might say, ‟Oh, but losing your job, that’s very important!” or ‟I don’t want to spend a lot of time worrying about whether my partner takes out the garbage.” But you know, sometimes we could spend a few days or a few weeks being really fumed up about somebody not taking out the garbage. But then you say, ‟Oh, that one’s petty. But losing my job is a big deal!” What’s the big deal about it? If you have this ability to attain equal love and compassion for all sentient beings and the ability to manifest a hundred thousand million billion bodies to be able to lead them out of samsara. You have that ability. So do you want to sit and spend your time worrying about your job for this life? I mean, this life is like nothing. In all of samsara, this life is nothing. What are we doing wasting so much time with all of our worries about it? It’s just like, drop it, and practice the Dharma and do something useful!

Just really make your life the best you can, because you have so much potential and so does everybody else. Instead of remaining stuck and, ‟Oh, my teenager is so wild, and they’re doing this and that,” and ‟My colleague at work is such an idiot, blah, blah, blah,” and ‟President Bush….” Instead of wasting all your time like that, just think that these beings also have the ability to generate bodhicitta and progress on these bodhisattva stages. Yes, George Bush has that opportunity! And so does Osama bin Laden, and so does whoever you can think of. It completely changes your view of other sentient beings. When you think like this it pulls you out of that very narrow mind that thinks that somebody is only what you happen to perceive them to be at that moment. Really think about these things. It just enlarges your mind tremendously.

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