I. The necessity of foundational practice
Though the Three Supreme Methods is the most foundational practice of Buddhism for the beginners, many probably have not even heard of it. It is by no means complicated to explain, but quite a difficult matter to execute properly even for those veteran Buddhists. Nevertheless, once we understand the philosophy and the aim of Buddhist teachings, we should try our best to apply what we have learned in order to make progress and be benefited from them.
It happens quite often that people make speedy progress at the initial stage of their practice, but the progress tapers off after some time. Worse, some may even stop practicing altogether. This is mainly due to a lack of systematic approach to Buddhist practice. What should be done about it? First, we must understand what the foundational practices are and duly recognize the importance they command on our spiritual journey.
If we try to practice the advanced teachings like the Great Perfection or Mahamudra without first completing the preliminary practices, no results will be achieved owing to inadequately prepared faculty. Thus, the foundational practices should be made the top priority for all who intend to bring their practice to fruition.
It is stated in the sutras that practitioners are classified into three levels. Top-level practitioners are able to make progress every day. Those in the middle fare a little worse but are still capable of some breakthrough each month. Even the ones in the low level can better themselves at least by the year.
Let us ask ourselves: “Which level do I belong? Did I or can I improve over last year?” If the answer is no, we do not belong to any one of the three levels of practitioners. Since there is no fourth level, it just goes to show that we are practitioners in name only. And even that could be an overstatement.
I met some lay practitioners who still had not completed the very basic practices long after taking refuge. It is terrible and very disappointing. The reason for that is primarily a lack of motivation, which leads to practice at a snail’s pace or sometimes even withdrawal to a complete stop.
When H. H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche gave the teaching of the Great Perfection, he requested that all participants must complete the five preliminary practices beforehand or no attendance be allowed. That certainly gave pressure to many who subsequently scrambled to complete in time. Of course, if completion means only meeting the requirement of finishing 100000 mantra recitations without generating the corresponding aspiration or actions, it will do nothing for the inner self but a show of formality. Hence, it is most important to take a systematic approach to dharma practice and be mindful at all times of pure motivation.
As stated in the sutras, “Existence in the human realm is rare, and all is impermanent.” Most of you here are already in your 30s and 40s. The remaining days, a few more decades at the most, are really not that long and will soon pass by before you know it. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee the opportunity to practice will present itself again in the next life if you fail to seize it this time. So the point is to lay the necessary foundation now as the stepping-stones leading to a better start for the next life.
The minimum goal we should set for ourselves of this life is to enter the bodhisattva’s path of accumulation, which is the first step, a must, to start the journey of dharma practice. What then is the primary factor leading to the path of accumulation? It is genuine bodhicitta. Surely you all know the definition of bodhicitta. Many may even be able to expound methodically its actual practice. However, it would be hard to say how many of you can actually arouse genuine bodhicitta.
We must realize that if we fail to take the first step in this life, we may not have another chance, as being reborn in the human realm is not guaranteed and the opportunity to continue our spiritual practice in the next life even less secured. So, we must begin now. Even if we do not advance very far with this first step, a very good foundation should have been laid for the next life. And the inherent blessing of bodhicitta will ensure the necessary conditions for practice to be continued then. Thus, no matter where and what the next life will take us, we will undoubtedly be reborn with unique qualities, that is, with compassion and bodhicitta. This first step is, therefore, very crucial.
Normally, when we are free from any physical suffering and encounter no difficulty in our daily life, we think the world is so good that we do not feel necessary to be mentally or physically prepared for impermanence -- just relax and idle the time away. Should some misfortune befall us, we would likely be caught off guard and much distracted as to what to do. By then it may be too late to even turn to the Buddha as a last resort.
On the other hand, many people feel insecure without money or the care of their children in old age, so they busy themselves all the time with the task of making money. As a result, their older years might have been well provided for, but not at all for their future lives. Eventually, everyone has to go through death and rebirth. It is startling to see that people in the secular world make no preparation for either.
Still, some others practice but only for the hope of gaining health, wealth, and other benefit through the blessings of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Of course, absent any adverse conditions, praying to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas can help us reach our goals. Nevertheless, the short-term goal of obtaining worldly fortunes should never be the choice of a dharma practitioner.
Reality is anything but sentimental. For eons, no one has been able to refute the existence of past and future life. This is the reality that everyone has to face. If one is not prepared when a calamity hits, no amount of worrying will help at that moment. Thus, practitioners must have the foresight to prepare for the unexpected and steadfastly take the path to liberation for themselves and others. While the body and the mind can still be exercised at will, one should seize every opportunity to practice, and practice diligently as an antidote to impermanence. Leave no chance for regrets later on.
After this brief introduction to the necessity of undertaking foundational practice, we will now address the main subject.
II. The Three Supreme Methods
Definition and significance
This practice is called the Three Supreme Methods. Previously, I translated it as the “Three Key Points” in order to get the attention of practitioners. All who study and practice Buddhist teachings must incorporate these three points in everything they do. It was translated as the “Three Key Points” simply due to its utmost importance. The direct translation from Tibetan is the Three Supreme Methods.
The Ornament of Clear Realization by Bodhisattva Maitreya named seven supreme methods. Every one of the six paramitas (generosity, morality, patience, diligence, contemplation and wisdom) that a bodhisattva practices must incorporate the seven supreme methods. These seven can be summed up more concisely in three. The virtuous actions we undertake, like meditating, burning incense or prostrating, should all be done in accordance with the three supreme methods. If so, even a simple act, such as offering a butter lamp or kneeling down to pay homage to the Buddha, can be the cause of enlightenment. Otherwise, no amount of virtuous deeds can lead us to the path of liberation or be the cause of Buddhahood.
What are the three supreme methods? They are: 1. motivation; 2. actual practice with a mind free of clinging and concepts; 3. dedication.
1. Motivation Normally, purpose should always precede action. Very rarely a good deed or spiritual practice is undertaken without a purpose. If virtuous actions are accompanied with supreme motivations, twice the result can be achieved with half the effort.
2. Practice with a mind free of clinging and concepts It refers to a certain state achieved in practice. Once succeeded in reaching this state, all the good deeds that one does, be it meditation or animal liberation, will naturally become something supremely excellent.
3. Dedication Upon completion of a virtuous deed or spiritual practice, a proper dedication of the merit should be done according to the text. Since very good karma has already been committed during meditation or animal liberation, how to apply this good karma thus becomes a pivotal question. Should it be used to attain liberation, health, longevity or rebirth in the god or human realm? We can choose. In essence, dedication is to make a purposeful choice.
It is imperative that we incorporate the three supreme methods in every good action we undertake. Otherwise, actions may seem impressive and beneficial on the surface, but in fact are less than admirable. Thus, it is most important to fully understand the essentials of the three supreme methods and practice them accordingly.
When practicing virtue, people might have different motivations owing to the different circumstances they are in. Motivations can be classified in three categories: unwholesome, neutral and wholesome.
Nowadays, some Buddhists’ motivations for conducting virtuous activities and taking up practice fall into this category. It is because they are only concerned with attaining happiness and comfort in this life, such as having good health, long life and wealth, or being able to avoid obstacles and suffering. If spiritual practice were to be undertaken only to achieve these aims, no matter how profound the practice itself might be, it would be deemed mundane. It is possible that practicing this way may bring worldly benefits, but no other good karma will ensue.
For example, if people practice the Great Perfection to eliminate physical pain or evil influence, this practice would become a mundane practice. The practice itself is not mundane, but it is motivated by worldly pursuits that turn it into something mundane in the end. For this reason, motivations of this kind are considered unwholesome.
Some may question, “These people are actually doing good things to others and keeping up with their practice, not killing or stealing. Why use the word ‘unwholesome’ to describe their intentions?” That is because even if one succeeds in reaping the benefits of this life through practice, so what? It is altogether likely that after regaining health, for instance, one may do something resulting in more negative karma, leading to more suffering in the future. Even though the motivation itself is not evil, it remains a potential cause of affliction. It not only will not help end suffering but more may ensue because of it. Hence, the descriptive word ‘unwholesome’ is assigned to this type of motivation.
The point is that Buddhist teachings are not just some stuff for casual conversation, nor should they be studied as cultural or academic subject. They ought to be applied in managing our daily life.
How should it be applied? Here is an example from the Mahayana Abhidharma Sangiti Shastra. Three people were having a meal together. One of them thought, “I’m going to steal something (or kill some animals) after my meal.” Another thought, “I’m going to help releasing some animals (or do prostrations) afterward.” The third person thought, “I just want to fill my empty stomach; nothing else is planned afterward.” They were all having a meal, but because each had a different purpose of eating, the same action resulted in three different kinds of karma. Eating, in the case of the one who wanted to kill and steal afterward, was doing evil; good karma for the one who wanted to do beneficial things afterward, which surely will bring good rewards in the future; neutral effect for the one who just wanted to fill the stomach, an ordinary daily activity that would not have any particular consequences. They were doing neither good nor bad things when having a meal. However, different motivations ended up causing three different results. It shows just how crucial motivation is.
As said before, if the purpose of doing something was to satisfy worldly pursuits such as health and longevity, it would be deemed an unwholesome motivation. All the activities done on this premise, whether they are meditation or reciting sutras, are considered just mundane practices that do not lead to enlightenment. Patrul Rinpoche had said that absent genuine renunciation and bodhicitta, if one were to do a nine-year retreat and cut off all associations with others to practice the Great Perfection full-time, one would not even sow the seed of liberation, let alone other achievements. How terrible not having generated renunciation and bodhicitta! What use is there for other practices when not even the Great Perfection can sow the seed of liberation? Therefore, making the choice of motivation should never be taken lightly.
If the purpose of doing a practice is to obtain happiness or to chase away suffering in this life, it is an unwholesome motivation. Although it is better than not having faith in the Buddha’s teachings or being indifferent to cultivating virtue, it does not lead to enlightenment. Thus, practitioners seeking liberation from samsara must not harbor this kind of motivation. It is also stated in the scriptures that such motivation must be given up. So every time we do something good, we should always check our motivation first. For example, when the idea of doing prostrations or liberating animals pops up in our mind, we should ask ourselves why we want to do this. If our motivation is found to be wrong, it must be corrected as quickly as possible.
Neutral means neither good nor bad. For example, someone invites a friend along to liberate animals, but the friend does not understand the merit and the benefit related to this activity, just goes along having no particular purpose. After the activity has ended, the friend’s participation would have resulted in a kind of neutral karma. Maybe someone will question, “Didn’t the friend also save some lives? Why was this karma neutral?” It is because the friend did exactly the same thing as everybody else but with no idea as to why it was done. That makes it neutral. Similar concept can also be found in the secular world. For instance, it is a serious crime if one intentionally kills a person, but not as much so if it happens by accident. On this, the law and the Dharma uphold the same principle.
It is stated in the scriptures that if our motivation is found to be neutral, we should rather improve than eliminate it. The reason is that the quality of being “neutral” and “wholesome” are relatively closer to each other, whereas being “wholesome” and “unwholesome” are poles apart. So while the former can be improved, the latter must be given up. Ordinarily, before we sit down to practice or meditate, we should first examine the motivation carefully. If it was found to be neutral, we should improve it. Otherwise, none of what we do can lead us to enlightenment. The resulting virtuous karma caused by a neutral motivation may be able to bring some temporal rewards, but only very meager ones.
This is the most superior of the three motivations. It can be further divided into the motivation of an inferior, an average and a superior practitioner.
The motivation of an inferior practitioner is the lowest of the three. Those who cultivate virtue with this kind of motivation do not think about liberation from samsara. They are only concerned with not being reborn into the hell, the ghost, or the animal realm but the realm of celestial beings or human; and as human, better be born as someone with good health, long life, high position and wealth. Their actions, albeit virtuous, will not bring them any closer to enlightenment. Hence, this type of motivation is relegated to the bottom level.
Some people may wonder why, as mentioned above, a motivation to pursue health and long life is considered unwholesome, but here it turns up in the section of wholesome motivation. The previous one is unwholesome in the sense that it only aims to take care of things for this life; whatever of the next life is not its concern. The inferior practitioners, on the other hand, do not seek enlightenment or rewards for this life. Their goal is to obtain temporal blessings for the next life, which makes it a wholesome motivation.
However, for those seeking enlightenment, this should not be the motivation for virtuous actions. Nowadays many lay practitioners make it a habit to chant Buddha’s name, burn incense, do prostrations and so forth every day. But please ask yourselves honestly why you do all these. Is it to gain health and longevity for this or next life and to make sure not going to the hell realm? If so, nothing that you do will ever free you from samsara, not if you practice for one hundred, one thousand, or even ten thousand years. Good karma resulted from this kind of motivation cannot be made the cause of liberation. Neither can it yield the fruit of liberation when matured. To practice with such intentions will not result in much virtuous karma other than some temporal benefits like health and long life, or avoiding rebirth in the hell realm.
The law of cause and effect works on infallible principles. For example, seeds of rice will yield only rice, not barley. Similarly, if a practice is not what leads to enlightenment, how can it yield the fruit of such? Many people think that if they regularly read scriptures such as the Diamond Sutra, the Thirty-Five Buddhas Repentance Ritual, the Practices and Vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, the Heart Sutra, etc., they are no doubt Buddhist practitioners. Actually, that may not necessarily be the case. While recitation of sutras is definitely a good thing to do, and the Buddha also praised its merit, motivation still matters greatly. If the motivation is not right, all will be wrong, and vice versa. That is, one can never do wrong with the right kind of motivation.
Some of you here started your Buddhist practice earlier, some just a couple of years ago. No matter how long it has been, we should all look back to see what motivated us to perform virtuous actions. If our motivation is that of the inferior practitioners, albeit some good karma may ensue, it will not lead to enlightenment. If we come to realize this might be a problem, something can still be done to transform our good karma into means for attaining enlightenment. The most effective way is to generate bodhicitta. Why? From the perspective of all things being incessantly arising and ceasing every instance, it is true that what we did before no longer exists, but the continuum of awareness of the karmic seeds has already been planted in our alaya consciousness. Once we have generated renunciation and bodhicitta, the continuum in the alaya consciousness will be transformed immediately. Virtuous karma of the past may thus become the cause of enlightenment. If we do not improve the inferior motivation, virtuous karma will forever remain just mundane practice and never become the cause of liberation. What a pity that must be!
Although it is not advisable to cultivate virtue with the kind of motivation mentioned above, it does not mean Buddhist practice cannot bring forth worldly benefit. Nor does it mean the Dharma should never be applied to worldly endeavors. Let us use taking refuge in the Three Jewels as an example. No matter what the motivation is, taking refuge prevents obstacles caused by both human and non-human beings, purifies a great deal of negative karma and brings health and longevity. These are the benefits inherent in taking refuge. Also, when we run into difficulty or experience pain, the normal thing to do is to pray to our guru and the Three Jewels, as all Buddhists should. It is not as if we oppose completely doing good for the sake of health or holding pujas for longevity and wealth. However, to direct every practice simply to gain worldly benefit is wrong. Liberation from samsara alone should be the ultimate goal for us taking up any practice.
The motivation of an average practitioner is that of a sravaka and pratyekabuddha, which is not to practice for worldly blessings like health or longevity. These people are scared of and loath all worldly fulfillments and clinging to the five aggregates (from physical body to consciousness), and long to rid themselves of the shackles of the five aggregates as soon as possible. Therefore, they do not perform good deeds or practice the Dharma for worldly benefit; yet liberation of others does not concern them either. Well, do arhats not have compassion? Yes, they do, and they take pity on the sentient beings as well. But because their compassion is not deep enough, they do not have the courage to help all sentient beings to freedom from samsara, wanting only to resolve their own cyclic existence. They are unwilling to generate bochicitta and practice for others’ sake. That is why such motivation is only of middling quality. Practice with this kind of motivation yields no karmic fruit other than liberating oneself.
Some people may think of themselves as practitioners of Mahayana, Pure Land, Zen or Vajrayana, but never Theravada practitioners. And they feel complacent, what with Mahayana being the superior vehicle and Vajrayana simply outstanding, whereas Theravada not being particularly profound. However, please carefully examine each one’s own motivation. Perhaps we will be ashamed to find that we are not even up to the standards of Theravada practitioners.
All branches of Buddhism fall under Mahayana and Theravada. There is no third vehicle. To be a Theravada practitioner, the first requisite is having unshakable renunciation—complete distaste for worldly fulfillments and whole-hearted pursuit of liberation from samsara. Do we have such resolution? If not, we would not qualify as Theravada practitioners.
Mahayana practitioners, on the other hand, must have undaunted bodhicitta and be willing to serve the needs of others unselfishly and unconditionally. Can we do that? If not, we would not be deemed Mahayana practitioners either.
If we are neither Mahayana nor Theravada practitioners, strictly speaking, we are not Buddhist practitioners at all. What are we after all? At best, we are believers of Buddhism or of Shakyamuni Buddha, who may intermittently chant some mantras and do some good deeds here and there. Really, just be a little better than non-believers. Though we may have had many teachings and empowerments, met more than a few respectable teachers and practitioners, we still cannot get any closer to even the edge of liberation. Worse, it must have been horrifying to discover that we possibly may not even be Buddhist practitioners when going through the aforementioned self-examination.
Many people have heard the teaching of the Three Supreme Methods before, but that is not enough. To actually practice it is the most crucial. In my opinion, there is no need to hear more teachings if a teaching cannot be put into practice. One should learn to apply faithfully one teaching at a time. Like walking, one only needs to see clearly some ten meters or so of the road ahead in order to move steadily forward. Conversely, knowing the condition of the road a hundred or even a thousand miles ahead but staying put at the starting point would be completely useless.
True, it is not that easy to be a real Buddhist, but do not let that discourage you either. Are renunciation and bodhicitta only fit for gods and celestial beings to develop? No, it is totally possible, even now in the so-called period of decline of the Dharma, for ordinary people like us to generate renunciation and bodhicitta. If they were only the privileges of the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas of the first bhumi, and impossible to be achieved by ordinary people, we would not be able to do anything even knowing that we are not yet qualified as Buddhist practitioners. But it is not like that at all. Renunciation and bodhicitta are something that ordinary people are absolutely capable of generating. We need not be too discouraged or too arrogant, just honestly evaluate ourselves and spur ourselves on all the time to make constant improvement and not be a practitioner in name only. The fact that we are probably not yet practitioners by any standards ought to keep us under pressure and ultimately push us to make progress. Nothing but serious actions can lead us to success.
People are likely to go astray if these points are overlooked. I think it is really unnecessary for some to hear the profound teachings like the Great Perfection just yet. Does it mean there is no benefit in listening to these teachings? No, that’s not what it means. Hearing the teaching certainly can plant some good seeds in the mindstream while also having the inherent merit associated with listening to the Dharma, but no other benefit to speak of. Therefore, I believe, without the necessary foundation, it is not very meaningful to rush into receiving those teachings. The most pressing task right now is to adjust the motivation.
Of course, only we ourselves know if we have aroused renunciation or bodhicitta. Unless someone has the ability to read other people’s minds, it is impossible for anyone else to know even through fortune telling or divination. Thus, for the sake of monitoring our development, we must act as our own most unforgiving supervisor.
The motivation of a superior practitioner is that of a bodhisattva, which is the most difficult in the category of wholesome motivation. My personal view is that barely a few people are able to take the path of the superior practitioner. Since beginingless time, all sentient beings have known to cherish themselves above others. Everything that one does is to take care of one’s own interest, seldom others’, and never serves others’ needs unconditionally. Therefore, it is usually not very difficult for someone to achieve worldly success, but quite a different matter when it comes to arouse genuine bodhicitta. When basic quality such as bodhicitta is absent, all practices will fail in reaching their objectives. Therefore, we must strive to succeed in generating bodhicitta, no matter how difficult it is. The challenge is with our own self, with that selfish mind. It is a constant battle we must face with endurance. If we work hard at it, we will triumph in the end.
Before, lacking the essential wisdom, people tended to love themselves almost unscrupulously. But, under closer examination, selfishness is really without reason, groundless and moreover a big obstacle in our quest for ultimate happiness. This was never mentioned in anything that we learned from the secular world. Though some people might have said something similar, they lacked profundity. Only the Buddha told us the truth. Through his teachings, we are able to reflect on our previous actions and thus come to the conclusion that we were wrong being selfish. Henceforth, bodhicitta can be aroused. Among all the wholesome motivations, bodhicitta is the most precious and most significant.
What is bodhicitta? The so-called bodhicitta is composed of two requisites. The first requisite is having the compassion to deliver all sentient beings from the suffering of samsara. Though we may not have the capability now, it can be developed. If we do not practice the Dharma, we will never have the ability. But if we do and are willing to make an effort, even though our capability is still somewhat lacking at the moment, we need not worry too much about it. Shakyamuni Buddha also began his path as an ordinary person and eventually attained enlightenment. He was not born a Buddha. In the biography of Milarepa, one disciple said to Milarepa, “Master, you must be an emanation of Vajrapani or some Buddha.” Milarepa immediately retorted, “I know you want to show your respect to me by saying that. Yet it is a serious defamation to the Dharma because it indicates that you don’t believe that the Dharma can transform an ordinary person into someone like me.” Therefore, the issue is not whether one has the capability but the determination to set about obtaining that capability from now on.
Actually, it might not be that difficult to think occasionally, “I want to deliver sentient beings from the suffering of samsara.” This thought may come up when we are not enduring any pain or hardship and our livelihood is not threatened. However, when facing with a life or death situation, say, if we were to choose between our own and other’s death, perhaps we would be too embarrassed to say, “I want that person to die.” But we would certainly say, “I don’t want to die.” This would be an indication of weak bodhicitta.
The second requisite is having the determination to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. This is because the attainment of Buddhahood is the ultimate way of freeing all sentient beings from suffering. Though we need various skillful means to achieve this goal, the most needed is not merely to offer others money, good reputation, enviable position or to establish charities to feed or treat the poor.
Instead, the most meaningful method is to propagate Buddhadharma from which others may find out for themselves the true nature of life. This is the only way that can really benefit others.
As a matter of fact, after having aroused bodhicitta, it is acceptable for a bodhisattva to use all available means to benefit sentient beings, except the ones that only bring temporary benefit but leave endless troubles afterward. This is what the Buddha advised, which also points out the difference between the Mahayana and Theravada precepts.
In the Theravada precepts, a line is clearly drawn between what one is permitted and forbidden to do, with no exception allowed. But a bodhisattva can do whatever is necessary to benefit sentient beings as long as there is no selfish intent or any ill consequence thereof. It was with exactly this kind of foresight and open-mindedness that the vows of the bodhisattva were laid down.
However, the bodhisattvas primarily do not use worldly means to save sentient beings, but show them instead how to choose the correct path by way of the Dharma. Man is an intelligent creature. Once they know the most reliable path, they will choose wisely and willingly take the path of enlightenment with enthusiasm. The practice of virtuous actions should never be a passive one. In fact, any good action, if forced, will not be good any more as it comes not from the heart and is done merely as a formality. Therefore, it is extremely important to make everyone understand the essence, the view and the conduct of Mahayana Buddhism.
As for other beings, we can employ different methods that are suitable for them. For example, when liberating animals, we should recite the Buddha’s names and mantras for these animals. They cannot understand the Dharma teachings, but we believe the recitation of sutras and mantras will sow seeds of liberation in their minds, and that these seeds will soon mature. By then, they will know how to take the path to liberation and will actively seek out its direction as well. This is all we can do for animals. Humans, on the other hand, understand ideas. Teaching them the Dharma then becomes something extremely important.
In his explanation of the Ornament of Clear Realization, Patrul Rinpoche raised a crucial point. He said, “The goal of the bodhisattva is not to attain Buddhahood.” If that was not the goal, would the practitioners of Mahayana have any goal at all?
What he really meant is that if the aspiration to attain Buddhahood was simply due to one’s admiration for the Buddha’s greatness, his pure innocence and fulfillment of all virtues, yet no concerns for liberation of other sentient beings, it would not be in accordance with the doctrine of Mahayana. In other words, if liberation of others is out of the consideration, no matter how hard one works to keep the vow of attaining
Buddhahood, those efforts will not be counted as Mahayana practice.
As one of the five major treatises, the Ornament of Clear Realization is certainly not one dealing with elementary subjects. It contains an abundance of instructions on practice and skillful means. Often enough, the masters abstracted their “pith instructions” from the five treatises and various other sutras and shastras. The above viewpoint also inferred from the treatises by Patrul Rinpoche is an important teaching and should be taken seriously by everyone.
In summary, the first requisite of generating bodhicitta is the aspiration to deliver sentient beings from samsara; the second, the determination to attain Buddhahood in order to free sentient beings from the suffering of samsara.
Now I have to remind everyone once again to recall and reflect on the many years of your Buddhist practice to see if you had in your mind only the interest of others and no concern at all for your own liberation. Had this idea ever crossed your mind? If not, there could not have been any real altruistic action either. And neither have you been Mahayana practitioner all these years. Besides, even if we have been reciting the sadhana of Receiving Bodhisattva Vows every day, without the determination to attain Buddhahood for the sake of sentient beings, we are unlikely to be affected much by the recitation. It will just become a mere formality in the end. How dreadful that must be!
If bodhicitta has not been aroused so far, every endeavor should be made to do so. A rather detailed explanation of the specific methods can be found in The Words of my Perfect Teacher. And more extensive instructions on the subject are available in Notes on the Words of My Perfect Teacher, which also have been included in Wisdom Light1 II— Teachings on the Five Preliminaries.1 So there is no need to repeat again now. Teachings in general are easier to understand, unlike treatises. Once understood and subsequently applied in actual practice, uncontrived bodhicitta can surely be aroused.
As you all know, the achievement of a trained athlete far exceeds that of an untrained person. Through training, however, the untrained can achieve the same result. Having bodhicitta or not is a matter of constant practice, not an unchangeable condition. If we do not start practicing now to generate bodhicitta, we will forever remain selfish and never become Mahayana practitioners. However, as we continue practicing for a period of time, say, three months, half a year, or a year, bodhicitta will certainly be developed to some extent. But it takes more than just practice to arouse bodhicitta. Other supportive measures are also needed, such as learning the merit of bodhicitta, studying and contemplating the relevant Mahayana texts, accumulating the most possible merit, etc. Without doubt, the most important is to cultivate the Four Immeasurables—loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity. If we can practice in this manner, arousing bodhicitta would not be a difficult task after all. For people who do not practice, it is indeed very difficult. Comparatively, those who are diligent will not find it quite so hard. In any case, all we Dharma practitioners must get pass this one hurdle before going further down the path to liberation.
In ancient times, cities were built with protective walls. If there was only one gate, everyone would have to go through that gate to go to any household in the city. Similarly, if we cannot break through the barrier of renunciation and bodhicitta, we will not have access to any genuine, profound practices like the Great Perfection, Mahamudra, Kalachakra and others. Once we pass, the doors to the various systems of practice will all open and we can choose at will to practice Pure Land, Zen, Madhyamaka, Mahamudra, or the Great Perfection.
For laypeople, cultivating bodhicitta and going to work actually are not two conflicting tasks; they can be undertaken simultaneously. Nowadays, the number of family members that one may need to support is probably seven or eight at most. Yet, during the time of the Buddha, an Indian king, who had to attend to numerous important issues every day, could manage to practice Mahayana and rule the country at the same time under the guidance of the Buddha. Similarly, after we have generated renunciation and bodhicitta, we do not have to immediately abandon all worldly activities such as working, handling family affairs and so forth.
As long as we do not develop attachment to those ordinary activities, we can practice and work at the same time. Generating renunciation and bodhicitta not only are not incompatible with daily work, but may even come in handy for a true practitioner faced with thorny issues or interpersonal conflict.
Of course, for those who believe in the law of cause and effect, and the cycle of death and rebirth, but just want to do good deeds to obtain worldly benefits instead of ultimate liberation, it is not necessary to generate renunciation and bodhicitta. Yet for practitioners seeking the path of liberation and that of the bodhisattvas, arousing bodhicitta is a critical step that particularly should be kept in focus.
With bodhicitta, many problems related to practice could be easily solved since bodhicitta has within itself the incredible capacity for accumulating merit, forgiving and purifying evil karma and so forth. Thus, bodhicitta is regarded as the indispensable universal key for the entrance of Mahayana Buddhism.
There are two levels of bodhicitta: relative and absolute bodhicitta. What we have discussed so far falls under relative bodhicitta. Absolute bodhicitta is realization of emptiness being the ultimate nature of all phenomena. Relative and absolute bodhicitta encompass the whole of Mahayana teachings; they are the quintessence of Mahayana Buddhism. Without bodhicitta, it would be impossible to practice Mahayana
Buddhism. That is how vital bodhicitta is.
Genuine bodhicitta of a bodhisattva refers to the aspiration to give others whatever is needed unselfishly and unconditionally, which in hard times is a particularly difficult thing to do. When times are easy and lives comfortable, it may not be too difficult to make a wish now and then during meditation: “I vow to attain Buddhahood for the liberation of all sentient beings. It is for this purpose that I meditate and undergo spiritual training.” But bodhicitta aroused in this kind of condition is an unstable one. Only with repeated practices can we generate bodhicitta that is genuine and firm.
Bodhicitta gives us the chance of going on the path of liberation. It is in essence the ultimate, true refuge. No matter who and what we are, everyone should have a refuge. What then should we take as our refuge? We all know that taking refuge in money, fame, or status is unreliable. How about our relatives, friends, or co-workers? Relatives and good friends can help us with some problems of this life, but they are completely powerless when it comes to solving the question of life and death. There is an analogy in the scriptures, “Two people, not knowing how to swim, are drowning at the same time; neither can save the other.” Likewise, relatives and friends, being ordinary people like us, are themselves entangled in the endless cycle of death and rebirth. How can they help us when they are helpless themselves? Hence, they are not reliable refuge either. What about taking refuge in some social organizations? Not viable either. The fact is, on the issue of breaking the cycle of death and rebirth and gaining liberation thence, no one can help us. The only refuge worthy of trust is the path to enlightenment, especially its key element, bodhicitta .
The happy life we are having now is not permanent. There is bound to be suffering in the future. Some people do not see the point of preparing for future lives because they are not feeling any obvious distress right now. Yet worrying about the well-being in their old age, they will do all they can to make money even without concerns for karma and retributions sometimes. This is very foolish. It has never occurred to them that they have already been born human and that no matter how hard this life is, it is nowhere close to the severe suffering born by those in the three lower realms. Where will we be reborn next time? Will we have another human birth like this one? No one knows. So, to be well prepared for the next life should be the rational thing to do. What does it take to be well prepared? It certainly is not wealth or fame we need but spiritual practice. Although Theravada practice can solve our own problems, it does not help others. Consequently, we must strive to arouse bodhicitta as it is the only means to help both ourselves and other beings to liberation.
Previously, I have never emphasized Vajrayana practices such as the Great Perfection. And personally, I don’t ever dream of one day attaining realization of the Great Perfection either. Is it because the Great Perfection is not sublime enough? No. The Great Perfection and the Great Madhyamaka are indeed highly sublime practices of Vajrayana. But my capacity is still not sufficient enough for me to tackle something so profound as renunciation and bodhicitta have yet been fully developed. It is as if someone sets out to paint a mural, but there is no wall space available. Of course, no mural either. So, a wall must be built first for a mural to be painted later on. This is how my situation is like right now. Practice of the Great Perfection or the inner winds and channels is something I need to learn and master but have not done so far. At this point, I can only aspire to successfully generate renunciation and bodhicitta. Other Vajrayana practices, like the Great Perfection, are not what I am seeking just yet. In fact, I will not even think about them because that will not help me one bit. My only wish now is to strengthen the foundational practices, i.e., renunciation and bodhicitta. Actually, many of the general and extraordinary preliminaries are developed and practiced just for this purpose.
This is the current state I am in. What about yours? What are your goals? Only you know the answers. I think, as a Buddhist, especially a Buddhist who has studied a great deal of Mahayana teachings, the goal should never be for money or worldly accomplishments. Perhaps to many of you, and me as well, the Great Perfection is just way too profound for us to grasp at this point. People like us should start with generating renunciation and bodhicitta, the foundational practice.
The cultivation of renunciation begins with the four general preliminaries: contemplating the rarity and preciousness of human birth, the impermanence of all phenomena, the law of infallible karma and the suffering of samsara. Upon successfully completing the general preliminary practice, renunciation will arise spontaneously. As for relative bodhicitta, it has two stages, i.e., aspiring and engaging. The practice of aspiring bochicitta is to cultivate the Four Immeasurables: loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity through which unbiased, unlimited compassion for all sentient beings will arise. Once that has been developed, generation of bodhicitta will be just steps away. It is only when practice progresses in an orderly fashion, step-by- step that we can hope to reap any results.
In addition, all practitioners need to do a self-check on goal setting. An incorrect goal would be tantamount to one’s biggest inadequacy. If that happens to be the case, then one may not even be a qualified beginner of Buddhist studies at this point. If unwilling to work hard, one will forever remain a non-Buddhist. Actually, everyone has the capacity to arouse uncontrived bodhicitta if real effort can be put into the practice. Bodhicitta, as taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, is a practice exactly meant for people, perhaps like us, who are not yet beginners and have no bodhicitta.
The teachings I have given so far all deal with renunciation and bodhicitta. Sure, I can also teach the Five Treatises or some advanced Vajrayana practices, but they will not be helpful to most of you here, at least not for the time being. It is like a cook should only make as much food as the guests can consume. To make more than the guests can stomach would be pointless. And this is the very reason why I hesitated to give advanced teachings all along.
But why do I keep reiterating these foundational practices? Reiteration, I believe, makes stronger impression and draws more focus on the subject at hand. If I just casually mention a few times these basic practices, you probably would not have any lasting memory or any careful consideration of them. Perhaps some of you are tired of my nagging by now. In any case, renunciation and bodhicitta will always be the core of our practice throughout.
There are also those who ignore these basics but tirelessly run back and forth between China and Tibet to receive empowerments without knowing their respective meanings, conditions and requirements beforehand, which in the end have very little effect on their quest for liberation. So, I hope you will all make generation of renunciation and bodhicitta your aim and strictly refrain yourselves from undertaking any Vajrayana practice until your aim has been achieved. Only then can you consider the advanced, more profound practices like the Great Madhyamaka, Kalachakra, Mahamudra, the Great Perfection and so forth. The Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism offers rich pickings of sublime practices, described by some as being plentiful as the yak’s hair. But no one would be qualified to practice any without first developing renunciation and bodhicitta as the base, which ought to be the single most important practice for us now.
2. Actual practice with mind free of clinging and concepts
Mind “free of clinging and concepts” means emptiness, the void nature of all phenomena. Most of you may not have realized emptiness, but there is no need to be anxious. Once you have generated renunciation and bodhicitta, realization of emptiness can be rather easy to accomplish after all. Conversely, trying to realize emptiness without cultivating renunciation and bodhicitta first will be like making rice out of sand. To use another analogy, it will be easier to harvest when seeds are sown in springtime. Whereas in wintertime, due to a lack of the requisite conditions, seeds sown in this season may not yield any crop no matter how much effort has been made. That is to say, when all the necessary conditions are in place and ripe for happening, things will naturally take their courses as wished.
The standard set in the texts regarding actual practice, say, the practice of the six paramitas, is to do it while realizing at all times the empty nature of all phenomena. For example, when releasing life of other beings, one should realize that the person who releases (oneself), the beings released and the act of releasing are all without self-nature and hence illusory like dreams. That is, the action performed is free of the concept of a doer, an object and an action. This constitutes the second of the Three Supreme Methods.
Before having realized emptiness, it is not possible to truly free mind of concepts. Then, we can just adopt an approximate approach to all actions, which is relatively close to but not quite the real thing. For example, after we have learned the analytical techniques of Madhyamaka, we can fully appreciate the idea that phenomena manifest and, at the same time, are devoid of intrinsic reality, like dreams. However, this is just theoretical understanding, not true realization of emptiness. Let us still use the example of liberating animals. At the time of liberating animals, or at least at the time of dedicating merit after completion of the activity, we can employ the Madhyamaka theory to discern the illusory nature of the doer, the object and the action, thereby approximate the real freedom of concepts for the mind. Though this is not true realization, it is already quite close to it and can be used to train the mindset at the initial stage.
So far we have discussed the approximate and the true version of practicing with a mind free of attachment and concepts. The true version refers to the way a bodhisattva, having arrived at the first ground, practices the six paramitas. Because the bodhisattva has realized the illusory nature of all phenomena, there is no attachment whatsoever to any practice of the six paramitas. But those who have not realized emptiness can only imitate the true version at best. If one does not understand the viewpoints of Madhyamaka, then not even this is practicable. When neither version is feasible, from what perspective can one approach the idea of a mind free of clinging and concepts?
For those who cannot practice either, the Buddha also pointed out a way. According to the scriptures, when practicing virtue, if it is impossible to have a mind free of concepts and attachments, one should at least try to be sincere and mindful. Being “mindful” means that not only the body does virtuous action but the mind also engenders proper aspiration, visualizes carefully and dedicates the merit. This is the lowest level one can reach in any practice. If the body is doing virtuous action but the mind wanders off, the virtue so cultivated will be made superficial and brings no benefit. We must pay attention to this.
To attain liberation from the suffering of samsara, one must succeed in realization of emptiness being the true nature of all phenomena, regardless of its apparent difficulty. One needs to overcome this last hurdle, renunciation and bodhicitta being the first two, before going further on the path to liberation. Once the first two are fully generated, realizing emptiness will come next. Without the latter, liberation would still be beyond reach even with renunciation and bodhicitta completely aroused. There is just no way to get around this. So ultimately, one must attain realization that all phenomena are emptiness.
Before one comes to this realization, the way to practice with a mind free of clinging and concepts is to conduct all practices earnestly, faithfully and whole-heartedly with the conviction of renunciation and bodhicitta. Though, for the time being, there is still certain difficulty in truly freeing the mind of attachments and concepts, as long as renunciation and boshicitta are firmly established, the true nature of phenomena will become fully evident over time. This is because the relationship between bodhicitta and realization of emptiness is one of interdependence. In other words, renunciation and bodhicitta will arise spontaneously upon realizing emptiness; emptiness shall be realized with relative ease once renunciation and bodhicitta have been generated.
What does dedication mean? For example, there are ten people and only one of them has food. The owner of the food could just keep it for self consumption. Instead, out of compassion, the food is shared with the other nine. Dedication is similar to this sharing. The good seeds sown by the virtuous actions that people perform will bear virtuous fruit. Mahayana practitioners, unwilling to enjoy the positive karmic result by themselves alone, give the fruit to all sentient beings to share. This is what dedication connotes.
There are two types of dedication: poisonous and nonpoisonous. “Poisonous dedication” means dedication with attachment. It is stated in the Prajnaparamita Sutra that good seeds sown with attachment is like poisonous food. It may taste delicious at first, but will cause tremendous pain when the poison takes effect. Similarly, good seeds sown not by actions performed with mind free of clinging, as explained above, may perhaps yield some transitory benefit, but more suffering will ensue and no liberation attained because such actions are deemed defiled phenomena.
Nonpoisonous dedication refers to dedication free of attachment and concepts, i.e. to dedicate while in the state of realization that the true nature of all phenomena is emptiness. Nonpoisonous dedication is further classified into two types—genuine and simulated. Genuine nonpoisonous dedication refers to the one made by the bodhisattvas, who have arrived at the first ground or higher, in a state of thought-free concentration. It is beyond the capability of ordinary people whose capacity is more suitable for simulated nonpoisonous dedication. Thistype of dedication is not to use the logic of Madhyamaka to discern the void nature of all phenomena but the visualization as described in the Thirty-five Buddhas Repentance Ritual. One should visualize in earnest as follows: “However the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of all times and ten directions dedicate their merit, I do the same with mine.” This way is simulated nonpoisonous dedication.
It has been said in many scriptures that although the simulated version is not genuine nonpoisonous dedication, it can be used as a substitute. For example, how do we dedicate the merit accrued from liberating animals? We should sincerely make a vow: “However the Buddhas of the past, present and future dedicate their merit, I will do the same as well.” This would be nonpoisonous dedication. Naturally, we can also recite the Practices and Vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra as it contains many auspicious dedications. If not knowing how or not having the time to recite the whole text, we can just recite the eight verses in the two stanzas from “In whatever way valiant Manjusri and Samantabhadra know how to transfer merit” to “I dedicate all of these roots of virtue to accomplishing the deeds of Samantabhadra.” Nagarjuna once said, “These two stanzas embody the essence of the Practices and Vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra.” Therefore, to recite just these two stanzas would be the same as having read the whole text. It is easy to do and, at the same time, is unadulterated with defilement and deemed to resemble genuine nonpoisonous dedication.
After performing each virtuous action, dedication must be properly offered as the resulting good karma may likely be destroyed before it ripens. In what circumstances can it be destroyed?
• Hate In Mahayana Buddhism, hate, or anger, is the worst defilement. Strong hatred, once born, can immediately destroy all good karma accumulated over one hundred kalpas.
• To boast one’s own merit For example, good karma is likely to be destroyed when a person, after reciting the heart mantra of Manjusri one hundred million times, goes on to tell others what great merit he or she has thus accumulated and flaunts the skills in meditation with pride.
• Regrets over virtuous action For instance, a person has properly liberated animals but regrets after some time, thinking, “That was a waste of money. I shouldn’t have done it.” This regret will immediately ruin the virtuous karma resulted from all previous acts of liberating animals.
• Inverted dedication of merit Inverted dedication would be for someone to dedicate, after completing a virtuous action, in the following manner: “May this root of virtue empower me to destroy my enemy so and so.” Dedication becomes inverted when it is adulterated with greed, hatred, or delusion. Although the evil wish may come true, owing to the power of dedication, no good karma will ever be born from the virtuous actions performed.
If we do not dedicate properly in time, under the circumstances mentioned above, all the roots of virtue, however many or supreme, will be destroyed in an instant. Of all the factors that may destroy good karma, hatred is the one that could arise most easily. When it does, it can destroy innumerable virtuous karma. To ordinary people, that would be most dreadful. Hence, dedication must be offered immediately after completing each virtuous action.
Will good karma never be destroyed after proper dedication has been offered? Normally, with proper dedication, especially one that is for the enlightenment of all sentient beings, karma resulted from virtuous deeds cannot be destroyed. It is like saving files in the computer. After they have been saved, they normally do not get lost.
In addition, dedication should correspond with motivation. If our motivation is to cultivate virtue for the sake of all sentient beings, our dedication should be for them as well. The two should not be inconsistent. It would not make any sense to arouse bodhicitta first and subsequently dedicate merit for our own benefit. According to the viewpoints of Mahayana Buddhism, we can dedicate merit neither for the worldly blessings of this life—our own health or prosperity, nor the attainment of the state of sravaka or pratyekabuddha, but enlightenment or the attainment of Buddhahood, the most sublime of all dedications. To dedicate as such, the seeds of virtue can never be depleted; the fruits born thereof, though ripened time after time, will never end. As the merit has been dedicated for the attainment of enlightenment, it will not disappear before then.
What is the difference between dedication and aspiration? On the premise that a virtuous action resulting in positive karma, like liberating animals, has been done, the aspiring vow made right after this action is dedication. When a vow or a wish is made without this premise, it is an ordinary aspiration. For example, when seeing a Buddha statue or a reliquary stupa, one prays, “May I in all future lives….” This is not dedication but aspiration. The difference lies in whether any virtuous action has been performed and any positive karma thus accumulated has been made the subject of dedication.
Now a few more things need to be emphasized. First, as a Mahayana practitioner, when aspiring or dedicating, one should begin with the vow: “May I, in the many lives from now until enlightenment, never harm the life or even a single hair of another being, not even for the needs of my own body or life.” Naturally, one must make good one’s promise. If, for the time being, one cannot fully keep one’s words, at the least one should vow this way: “May I, in the many lives from now until enlightenment, never intentionally harm the life of another being, even for the needs of my own body or life.” Failing this, any more talks on practicing Mahayana would be pointless. Moreover, we should encourage ourselves to make the promise of not harming other beings at all costs as quickly as we can and make good that promise, which ought to be the goal of our practice at the moment as well.
Second, according to the sutras, when we dedicate, no matter how great or insignificant virtuous karma may be, we should never make the vows of the celestial being and human realm or that of a shravaka: “May I, through this root of virtue, attain the state of Chakravarti (a universal monarch), or have health, long life and so forth.” Rather, the vow should be: “May I, with this root of virtue, become the refuge of all sentient beings, the one who delivers all from samsara.” To dedicate as such with resolution is dedication of a bodhisattva.
An analogy of dedication is that a person, unwilling to keep the food just for self-consumption, shares with others. Does this mean one’s virtuous karma is reduced after dedication, the same way one only keeps a dollar after sharing ten dollars with nine other people? The root of virtue is not at all like that. The more it is dedicated, the more it grows; the more it is kept for oneself, the more likely it decreases. This aspect of the root of virtue is just the opposite of that of worldly things. Thus, never forget to dedicate.
To make a simple dedication, one can recite the two stanzas of the Practices and Vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Or, one can choose other longer dedication prayers for a more extensive dedication.
For example, the last chapter of Bodhisattvacharyavatara: Engaging in the Conduct of the Bodhisattvas is on dedication. Its contents are all about dedications of the bodhisattvas. Certainly a fine choice for the occasion, that is.
One thing should be noted is that whether or not an aspiration prayer or dedication prayer is empowered to bestow blessing depends a great deal on who the author is. Can ordinary people like us write dedication prayers? If our motivation is pure, this purity of mind may lend certain ability, but no power to confer blessing to the prayers we write. It would not result in any benefit whatsoever to recite this kind of prayer one thousand or ten thousand times. Therefore, the author of a dedication prayer should best be a bodhisattva who has arrived at the first or higher ground, or at least a practitioner of the path of preparation who has attained a high level of realization. Only their words hold the power of blessing. Likewise, only the prayers of dedication and aspiration from them should be employed in our practice.
Longchenpa said that all virtuous actions, great or small, should be performed within the framework of the Three Supreme Methods. Following this, whatever actions being undertaken will be leading to the path of liberation. Otherwise, the good deeds will be far removed from the path to liberation, however great or appealing they appear to be. This is how important the Three Supreme Methods is.
For most of us, it is still quite difficult to actually practice with a mind free of clinging and concepts, but for the time being we can practice the approximate version of it as a substitute. To truly generate motivation and make dedication as dictated by the Three Supreme Methods, we need to bring our practice up to a certain level first. Just as an athlete must be trained from early on to achieve an outstanding performance, aspiring to taking the grand vow of a bodhisattva needs tremendous practice right from the beginning. There is no way an aspiration of such magnitude can arise spontaneously without studious practice in advance. I hope every practitioner not only appreciates the importance of but also strives to practice the Three Supreme Methods, with particular emphasis on generating renunciation and bodhicitta. No need to rush into other practices before a solid foundation has been established.
1 Wisdom Light: lecture series given by Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro