Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment – Teachings by The Gyalwang Karmapa: Day One
December 10, 2010 – Bodhgaya
Compassion is the Essence of the Path
In Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha has walked the land, moving along his way to the Bodhi Tree and full awakening, the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, has presided over the Kagyu Monlam since 2004 and given teachings to his disciples. This year he has built a vast stage for Dharma teachings and cultural performances. Above it are monumental arches covered with azure blue cloth, and in its middle is a golden canopy, floating like the sun in empty space. Aligned underneath is a statue of the Buddha, framed in a shell of radiant light, and then a statue of the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, who is so life-like that many people think the Karmapa has come early and is meditating on his throne. Next, just after the circle of a brilliant sun cascades down the steps, is the Karmapa’s throne, surrounded by generous bouquets of flowers. Seen from the end of the pavilions that host thousands of guests, the perspective of the central aisle gives a brilliant and spacious image of the lineage, descending from the Buddha to the first Karmapa and coming down to the present 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje.
It is he who will start teaching today on the great Indian scholar, Jowo Atisha’s famous Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. Beforehand, the sound of the lay and ordained sangha chanting the mantra “Karmapa Khyenno” (Karmapa, you are the one who knows) fills the early morning with its gentle, peaceful sound. Soon the high-pitched jalings pierce the air with their rising tones to announce His Holiness’s arrival down the central aisle to his throne in front of Dusum Khyenpa and the Buddha. He makes three reverential bows to them, and settles on his throne as the early morning sunlight shines on his face.
After several chants, including the Tashi Prayer for auspicious beginnings, he is given the traditional offerings for a long life, which are presented by Gyaltsap Rinpoche, (one of the four main Kagyu tulkus), Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, (the Karmapa’s teacher), Mingyur Rinpoche (the abbot of Tergar Monastery), Bagyod Rinpoche (owner of the statue of Dusum Khyenpa that will travel the world this year), and Lama Chodrak, the main organizer of the Kagyu Monlam.
After the Karmapa is asked to turn the wheel of Dharma, he makes his own prayers, ending with his hands together in a deep bow of great respect to the Buddha and the lineage.
Opening the teachings, the Karmapa first traced the history of his teachings here in Bodh Gaya, where they began in a small hall of the Mahayana Hotel. When it became too small, they were moved to the Taiwanese temple and then again to Tergar Monastery’s shrine hall, and finally this large site where thousands can be accommodated. Atisha can be linked to the Kagyu through Gampopa who first studied in the Kadampa lineage before meeting Milarepa and receiving his mahamudra (Great Seal) teachings. After Gampopa combined these two streams, this river has become one of the main currents of practices done by the Kagyu Lineage.
I would like to mention here that if there is something good and positive in what I am saying, please take this in and try to practice it. My main audience for these teachings is people from the Himalayan region and also for general public so please take this into account as you listen.
Shantideva has written that a human life is difficult to obtain and if we do not use it well, we may not find one again. This, of course, relates to the first of the four thoughts that turn the mind: the precious human birth. It is not enough, however, to understand this intellectually: we must take it into our hearts. A precious human birth is difficult to attain because it requires so many different causes. We might think that there is a problem of overpopulation in the world, so how could it be so difficult to get a human birth? But we are talking about a precious human rebirth, and this is special, requiring many positive deeds in the past. Think how difficult it is to do one positive act, and then think how much more difficult it is to do this all the time.
Human beings have an intelligence that allows them to make distinctions between what they should take up and what they should give up. We should extend this intelligence to encompass all beings vast as space and understand what helps or harms them. And this should not be just a mental act: we should try to help on a practical level. Otherwise, our intelligence can be more dangerous than the most ferocious tiger. In sum, we need to think carefully and on a vast scale.
If we are true Dharma practitioners, devotion is not enough. The starting point of Dharma is to appreciate the preciousness of human beings and the benefit and harm that we do. In order to become enlightened as Vajradhara, we first need to become a good human being and understand our mind. Otherwise, we are just imitating others.
We should speak a little about the author of this text. Jowo Palden Atisha was born in Bengal, and became a highly realized being. His most inspiring action was coming to Tibet and turning the wheel of Dharma in Tibet, giving deep and vast teachings including the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. All the teaching on the stages of the path stem from this text. It has been said that if Atisha had not come to Tibet, Tibetans would have been blind.
In general, this teaching is important because it is profound and non-sectarian. At his university, Vikramashila, all the schools were present and asked Atisha to become their leader. Atisha knew and respected all different schools and vehicles, including the deep teachings of Nagarjuna and the vast teachings of Asanga, which he understood to be in harmony with each other.
How then should we listen to these teachings? As if our throat were parched and we desperately needed a drink of water. Some people think they already know the Dharma, so their minds are filled with pride and they cannot hear. We should not be like this. There are many different ways to teach, but I think it’s important to teach what goes into our hearts and what inspires us. I do not want to look learned, but give you what is useful to you. All the Buddha’s teachings are about how to transform yourself. And you should not just listen to me: you have to think for yourself so that you can transform yourself.
We are trying to become enlightened, searching for wisdom that will free us of our ignorance. And we are not talking here about religions or schools, but any wise teaching that is useful and established as good. We should not throw this away like tossing grass in front of a carnivorous animal.
One of the Karmapas has said that our samsara is a small samsara, and the Buddha’s samsara is a big samsara. How to understand this? We are focused on the limited samsara of our life while the Buddha is constantly in samsara to help living beings and there is no end to this. Samsara is the office of the Buddha, his field of work, and he never leaves that space.
Bodhisattvas help everyone, even someone who is only interested in this life. And, actually, this is the first type of the three types of people discussed in Atisha’s text. The second type relates to those who wish to be free of samsara. And the third is those who work for the benefit of others. We should reflect upon which one applies to us. It has been said that there is no difference in the depth of Dharma but the difference is in the depth of our mind. We need to know our minds well enough to know the right time for a practice. If we try to walk a high wire from the very beginning, we may well pay a visit to Yamaraja, (the Lord of Death).
For great beings, everything is done through compassion. The wish to eliminate the suffering of all living beings is the mahayana motivation. In addition, the vajrayana brings a sense of urgency to our wish to free living beings from suffering, and this gives a special feeling to the practice. If you are in a burning fire, you would not complacently sit there, but exit in great haste. In the same way, when you see living beings’ suffering, is no time to relax. Mahayana translates as “the Great Vehicle” and it is great because of great compassion. How much responsibility can you take? For one person? For many? If you are able to take responsibility for others, whether you call yourself a mahayana follower or not, you are one.
We need to reflect upon compassion from many different angles, and not just through thoughts but from our heart and bones. Once bodhicitta (the wish to become enlightened for the sake of others), arises in us, then we are bodhisattvas. But if we let go of one living being, if we give up on just one person, then we lose that bodhicitta.
People ask why there are so few Buddhists. The reason is that being a Buddhist is difficult: we have to study and practice. Most people want something that is easy–you just stretch out your hand, and you have it. It is through study and practice that Buddhists seek the two benefits: temporary and ultimate. The temporary one protects us from lower births and suffering in this realm; the ultimate one is full awakening. We need to understand what the benefits are and have the motivation to attain them.
The root of bodhicitta is both love and compassion, but compassion is more important. We can develop these by thinking of ourselves and our own body. We can experience how much we wish to avoid suffering and how we also wish for increasing freedom. Then we can extend this and understand that all beings resemble us in these wishes. It is not that we are over here and other living beings are at a distance over there. If we see someone in pain, we ask ourselves, “What would it be like to have that discomfort?” We feel ourselves into their situation.
There are many diverse religions, cultures, histories, and civilizations but all of us live under one sun and moon and on one earth, and we breathe the same oxygen, so we are like one family. We must feel the suffering and happiness of others: we carry all the suffering together and share the happiness. There is a famous quote: If I have happiness, may it be shared by everyone; if others have suffering, may I carry it all.
Discord will Ultimately Lead to the Destruction of the Dharma
The sun had moved across the sky when the Gyalwang Karmapa returned at 3.00pm to resume his discourse. The parasol which had shaded him during the morning session was no longer necessary. He prostrated before ascending the teaching throne, then began.
The following is an edited account of the teaching not a transcription, and is derived from the English translation, not the original Tibetan.
The teachings of Lord Buddha do not contain contradictions but are skillful means for reaching different people at different stages on the path to enlightenment. The Tibetan tradition of Buddha’s teachings contains both the Tripitaka and the Four Tantras. The teachings exist alongside experience, and, when the profound meaning is understood, though there might be different ways of explaining words, and the level might differ, there is no contradiction. If you correctly understand the profound meanings of the teachings, you will comprehend how all the teachings of the Buddha, the treatises by the Indian masters, and so forth, all contribute as the method on the path to enlightenment. Those scholars who express doubts of authenticity because of contradictions, are concentrating on semantics and not the profoundest levels of meaning. For instance, when Lord Buddha sometimes says that the self (Skt atman) exists, and then sometimes says the self does not exist (Skt. anatman), it is not that he is contradicting himself but that, through his compassion, he is using skillful means to benefit people by teaching according to their needs
Further, the profound meaning of the Dharma is not contained in external appearances such as statues or monasteries. The different schools of Tibetan Buddhism are rather like a salesman’s pitch, focusing on the special qualities of his goods, because it is geared to the individual needs and tastes of the clients. People, however, become confused and cannot see beneath these externalities, mistakenly adopting the view that their school is correct or better and that others are wrong. The Dharma is not such superficial appearances but the teachings combined with experience.
The first important aspect when considering Jowo Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment is that it provides a complete teaching on the path to enlightenment, from the very beginning to the ultimate realizations. Such a comprehensive overview helps us understand the teachings and realize that there are no contradictions.
(The teaching was interrupted at this point by the Tea Offering which took the form of an offering to Atisha.)
The second important aspect of the text is that it contains all the Buddha’s instructions and hence the name Kadampa (ed. note :the Tibetan Buddhist tradition founded by Jowo Atisha’s disciple Dromtön Gyelway Jungnay). In this two-syllable word, the first part ka refers to the Buddha’s speech, and the second part dam refers to instructions. Thus all the Buddha’s instructions help somebody to progress along the path to enlightenment, and all the words in the Tripitakas and in the Four Tantras are instructions. The Lamp for the Path is a teaching which can be practised in a day—incorporating the main path, branch teachings, all the methods, and all the instructions necessary for someone to attain enlightenment—written in an easily accessible way.
First must come contemplation of this precious human life. We should continue this practice until we fully understand and appreciate its meaning, even if it takes a whole lifetime. Some practitioners seem to think a practice can be done and finished in a certain amount of time, and then request a new one, sometimes going from one Lama to the next, in search of new practices, saying, “I’ve been practising Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara). What shall I practise now? Drolma?” as if a practice lasted a fixed time and now the time has expired!
We need to appreciate that all the teachings that the Buddha gave contribute to enlightenment, in the same way that a skilled doctor tries different methods, medicines, diets etc. in order to cure the patient. One instruction may be more useful to you, but every instruction is beneficial.
These days there has been a development of more extensive study programmes in Kagyu monasteries and nunneries but this is not in conflict with the notion of the Kagyu as the Practice Lineage. We need to appreciate that all the study texts and treatises are not simply for study but are practice manuals too. Study and practice go together. Buddhist practice should not just be based on faith, but on understanding. Hence many of the Karmapas produced scholarly works and many of the great meditation masters also recommended study, because if you don’t understand how to practice, all the empowerments, reading volumes of texts on Mahamudra and so forth, and even the presence of the Great Vajradhara himself, won’t help you.
It is important for us to understand what it means to abandon the Dharma. This is one of the worst misdeeds. The principal reason for the degeneration of the Dharma in our time is discord in the Buddhist community, as was predicted. It was said that Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings would come to an end because of such disharmony. The illustration given was that even when a lion dies, the other animals in the jungle are still too afraid to eat the carcass. How then does it come about that the body is destroyed? By small insects that eat it from within. In the same way, that’s how Buddhism will be destroyed.
Abandoning the Dharma includes divisive speech. We should abandon criticism and negative remarks not just concerning our own Buddhist school, but other Buddhist schools, and other religions. The original Sangha split first into four and then eventually into eighteen schools. Often our priorities are wrong. We concentrate on the survival of our own Dharma lineage when the survival of the Buddha’s teachings is the important thing. There was once a Lama who was asked to write an aspiration for the flourishing of the dharma and made the point that the whole Dharma should remain, not just that of the school he belonged to. In addition, we need to recognize that there are different Buddhist Dharmas, Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana, and many non-Buddhist Dharmas, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and so forth.
There is an important place for honest debate and exchange of ideas but not for pointless negative criticism; it is wrong to look down on or disregard other schools. Much of the damage which is contributing to the destruction of the Dharma is fuelled by attachment to one’s own school. Especially here in Bodh Gaya, everyone should make sure that they are not harming the Dharma in any way.
Great compassion arises from contemplating one’s own suffering in samsara, under the sway of negative emotions. An example from my own experience is when people come to see me, I am often saddened because I feel unable to help them, but this makes me more determined to practice. And that’s the crux of the matter, we have to practice. It seems to me that renunciation and compassion are like a two-way mirror—look inwards and it becomes renunciation, look outwards and it becomes compassion.
In order to generate bodhicitta we have to realize that wherever we are in samsara, there is suffering, and extend the wish to be free of suffering to all. The Mahayana cannot exist without bodhicitta, and this has to be complemented by an understanding of emptiness and selflessness.
All of these come together in Vajrayana. This is why we say that the preliminary is deeper than the actual practice. First we accumulate merit and purify ourselves so we need to take refuge and practice the Seven Branch Practice. In the text, Jowo Atisha describes three capacities of beings, but it is important to understand that all three levels are related.
In Vajrayana, the Lama is very important. Therefore, you need to know how to relate to the Lama, and how to receive empowerments and ripen yourself. You must understand and practice samaya and the Vajrayana precepts. It is very important not to break the samayas, so you especially have to understand the root samayas. As you go higher on the Vajrayana path, the negative consequences of breaking the samayas or precepts grow increasingly greater and greater.
The Lamp for the Path contains five sections: first refuge, second aspiration bodhicitta and action bodhicitta, third calm-abiding meditation, so that you can help others, fourth the skillful means, and fifth the union of wisdom and compassion. From beginning to end this text is for practice today The commentary used will be the one written by the Fourth Gyaltsap Rinpoche which accords with Kadampa Geshe Sharawa.
The text opens with homage to the Three Jewels.
I pay homage with great respect
To all the Victorious Ones of the three times,
To their teaching and to those who aspire to virtue…
and respect to people who have more qualities than we have.
Urged by the good disciple Jangchup Wö…
Atisha wrote this book at the request of Jangchup Wö, the King of Ngari.
I shall illuminate the lamp
For the path to enlightenment.
If you have a lamp you can see the path at night and won’t get lost—this book is the lamp to help travelers on the path to enlightenment.
Verse two introduces the three capacities of beings:
Understand there are three kinds of persons
Because of their small, middling and supreme capacities.
I shall write clearly distinguishing
Their individual characteristics.
and verses three, four and five define each capacity.
Know that those who by whatever means
Seek for themselves no more
Than the pleasures of cyclic existence
Are persons of the least capacity.
Those who seek peace for themselves alone,
Turning away from worldly pleasures
And avoiding destructive actions,
Are said to be of middling capacity.
Those who through personal suffering,
Truly want to end completely
All the suffering of others
Are persons of supreme capacity.
At this point, the teachings broke for lunch.