Sonam Rinchen, 1933-
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BQ 7950.T754 L358 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The wish for freedom, an altruistic intention, and the wisdom of emptiness constitute the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment.

Author Notes

Geshe Sonam Rinchen is resident scholar at the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives in Dharamsala, India, where he teaches Buddhist philosophy & practice.

(Bowker Author Biography)



Chapter One The Wish for Freedom The Fetters The text now examines the reasons for developing the wish to leave cyclic existence and how the wish is aroused. It also defines what it means to have developed that wish. 3 Without the wish for freedom there is no way to calm The pursuit of pleasant effects in the sea of worldly existence. Since those with bodies are fettered by their thirst for being, First seek the wish to leave cyclic existence. Without this wish you remain preoccupied only with the glories of cyclic existence and lack the incentive to free yourself. A prisoner serving a life-sentence, who feels comfortable in jail, makes no attempt to escape and so will never be free. If our wish to find a way out of cyclic existence is sufficiently strong, we will definitely reach freedom.     As long as we have a contaminated body and mind which result from actions underlain by the disturbing emotions, we are in cyclic existence. Disturbing emotions stimulate compulsive actions, giving rise to rebirth with a contaminated body and mind. Ignorance causes craving, which provokes action and leads to further rebirth of the same kind. And so the process continues interminably life after life.     The fetters of contaminated action and disturbing emotions keep us bound to this cycle of involuntary birth and death. What is bound? Our mental consciousness which continues from one life to the next. At present we lack control over our destiny because we are driven by these emotions, whose dictates we obey. Such a total lack of freedom, in which we are governed by other forces that do nothing but harm us, is clearly a condition of suffering. Cyclic existence is synonymous with suffering. Only when we recognize this and feel an intense antipathy for it will the wish to extricate ourselves arise.     People who are rich and influential experience much anxiety about gaining and retaining wealth and authority. They are consumed by fear of losing what they possess. Though, of course, they too experience physical pain, their suffering is chiefly mental. Those who are poor and without influence experience constant physical hardship as they try to find the basic necessities of life--food, clothing and shelter. In rich countries we forget that these are the main concerns of most people in the world, who are simply struggling to survive. Their suffering is mainly physical, though naturally they also experience anxiety. Everyone faces trouble and sorrow.     Without a strong drive to free yourself from cyclic existence you will continue to desire the pleasures of this world. You may think, "Well, what's wrong with that?" The quest to find happiness in these ordinary pleasures keeps you bound to worldly existence and the satisfaction you seek will always elude you. Though craving itself is different from the basic misconception of the self which lies at the root of our suffering, this thirst experienced by beings with bodies keeps us chained to suffering in every way. If you are carrying the wood of a prickly thorn-tree on your naked back, no matter which way you turn or shift the load, you will never find a moment's comfort until you set it down.     In our heart of hearts we know that our present condition is uncomfortable. Wherever we travel we are reminded of it because sooner or later something goes wrong--either we get sick or unhappy. No matter how great the luxury we enjoy or the excellent company we keep, misery of some kind dogs our footsteps.     Cyclic existence is not a place. Places are easy enough to leave. Nor does cyclic existence only affect certain species or groups of people. It affects every ordinary living being. Our lack of understanding is the root of our suffering and is responsible for our troubles. The emphasis placed on education is a sign that this is generally recognized, but the knowledge most educational institutions impart is relevant only to the concerns of this life and therefore cannot help to free us. The second most invidious factor that fetters us is craving. In the twelve-part process through which we remain within cyclic existence, ignorance, craving and grasping prepare the ground for suffering.     Ignorance is our confusion regarding the fundamental nature of things, particularly of the self. Without it the strong sense of "I" does not arise. Though there is a self, our ignorance magnifies it disproportionately, causing intense disturbing emotions to arise. Focusing on this false self, we are preoccupied with its happiness. Craving is the desire for that happiness, while grasping reaches out for it. These two must be stopped if we are to gain nirvana.     How is it done? First create a good motivation to do what is constructive and turn your mind towards the teachings. Work at decreasing your desires and cultivating contentment. Just this alone would increase your happiness dramatically, whereas the insatiable desire for better friends, lovers and possessions creates a continual and depressing sense of poverty.     A multitude of disturbing emotions and carelessness are responsible for our unwholesome physical actions and speech. Ethical discipline consists of decreasing such actions and the craving to have the best of everything just for ourselves. While these concerns haunt us, our practice will not be genuine, even if we meditate intensively day and night. Pure practice can arise only when we stop craving the ordinary pleasures of this life as well as the joys and comforts of future lives.     Developing the wish to leave cyclic existence encompasses the practices of the initial and intermediate levels of the path. You might think that since you want to attain Buddhahood, you could just devote your efforts to developing the altruistic intention and that there is no need to arouse a wish to leave cyclic existence, since you have vowed to take rebirth in cyclic existence again and again for the sake of others. However, only a very strong personal wish to escape from cyclic existence will make you aspire to gain enlightenment. Unless you fully recognize your own condition of suffering and want to free yourself, you will never feet the intense compassion for others in a similar condition, which eventually gives birth to the altruistic intention.     The Kadampa master Geshe Sharawa used a homely example: if we don't have a real desire to rid ourselves of the disturbing emotions and actions that keep us trapped in this cycle of birth and death--a desire which results from seeing their faults--our wish to leave cyclic existence and our aspiration for freedom will be merely superficial. If you sprinkle tsampa--parched barley flour, the Tibetan staple--on beer, it just floats on the surface.     Just understanding what the wish to leave cyclic existence and the altruistic intention entail does not make you a real practitioner. These attitudes must be so deeply ingrained that they become the motivating force for everything you do. Thirst for Pleasure The way to make your practice pure and to develop the wish to escape from the cycle of involuntary birth and death is first to overcome longing directed towards the things of this life. 4 Freedom and riches are hard to find; life is fleeting- Familiarity with this stops clinging to this life's pleasures. Repeatedly considering actions, their unfailing effects As well as the suffering of cyclic existence Stops clinging to future pleasures. Thinking about the preciousness of your human condition and its transient nature helps you to do this.     In his quintessential instructions for training the mind called Parting from the Four Attachments the great Sakya Jetsün Trakpa Gyeltsen said, "If you are attached to this life, you are no practitioner. If you are attached to cyclic existence, you have no wish to leave it." Whether you are a true practitioner is determined by whether or not you have let go of worldly matters. Worldly concerns and seemingly spiritual activities, such as reciting prayers, can go hand in hand, but authentic practice will never mesh with worldly ways.     Real practice depends on your thoughts and intentions. Dromtönpa once saw a monk circumambulating a stupa and addressed him respectfully, "Master, doing circumambulations is good, but it would be better to practice." So the monk decided to try prostrations and was energetically engaged in this, when Dromtönpa said the same thing to him. Next the monk devoted himself to recitation and then to meditation, but each time Dromtönpa made the same remark. Thoroughly perplexed, the monk asked Dromtönpa what he meant by practice. Dromtönpa emphatically repeated "Give up this life!" three times.     Don't misunderstand this to mean you must give away all your possessions and leave your family, your home or your job. It is about overcoming attachment. A Tibetan master, Shang Nachung Tönpa, again and again requested Atisha to teach him, but Atisha only told him, "Let go! Cultivate love, compassion and the altruistic intention." Nachung Tönpa complained that this was all Atisha had said. When Dromtönpa heard of his complaint, he commented, "Doesn't he realize that he's received the pith of our lord Atisha's instructions? Even someone as great as Shang doesn't know what it is to receive a teaching." Eventually Nachung Tönpa took to heart what Atisha had told him and began giving his students the same advice: let go of attachment and be kind-hearted.     Concern for this life mars what we do and prevents practices from being authentic, while even quite an ordinary action done with the wish to escape from cyclic existence becomes a valid practice of the Buddha's teaching. Love, compassion and the intention to become enlightened for others' sake makes that same action a Mahayana practice. Otherwise no matter what elaborate rituals we perform, they are merely like the tsampa floating on the beer.     Letting go of our preoccupation with the things of this life involves giving up the eight worldly concerns, which in short depends on overcoming attachment to food, clothing and reputation. Many meditators, scholars and monks happily forego good food and clothing, and live a simple life, yet they remain attached to a good reputation, which is hardest to give up. Above the entrance to the cave it may say, "Retreat in progress. Do not disturb," but inside the retreatant is hoping for recognition as a great meditator. The scholar has hopes of acclaim for his great knowledge and the monk for his pure morality. Such thoughts attract obstacles and prevent anything valuable from being accomplished. If letting go of our attachments is the door to pure practice, we must look within and see where we stand. It is not easy to be a true practitioner.     In his Letter to a Friend , Nagarjuna says: Worldly wise one, the eight worldly concerns Are getting and not getting, happiness and unhappiness, Fame and disrepute, praise and blame. Without letting them Be objects of your mind, treat them as the same. As long as you are pleased to receive gifts and rewards, to be happy, well thought of or praised and are displeased when you do not receive rewards and material gain, when you are unhappy, ill thought of or criticized, these considerations will influence your feelings and actions, and no matter how carefully or intensively you perform formal practices, they will be of no real benefit. It is essential to stop the habit of thinking, "If only I could have this, everything would be fine."     The great master Lingrepa reiterates this: In this city of preconceptions, cyclic existence, The zombies of the eight worldly concerns scurry. Here there is a fearsome burial ground! Master, if you wish To make things the same taste, do it towards this. Yang Gönpa, student of the great master Götsangpa says, "It's no use if the teachings are on the Great Completion, unless the person measures up to the Great Completion. Many speak of practices worth a horse, but I see a lot of people worth less than a dog. When the teachings become mere words and are not put into practice, they're no different from what a parrot recites. If your mind and the teachings are like tsampa and water that haven't been mixed and there's a gap between the teachings and your mind big enough for a man to pass through, if the teachings are just floating around on top, like lung when it's cooking, the purpose of the teachings has definitely not been accomplished. As for me, I've made letting go of this life the heart of my practice. Take heed everyone!"     It is one thing to dispute the value of the Buddha's teaching and have no belief in it, but quite another if one claims to follow the Buddha and studies his teachings yet doesn't practice or take them to heart. Parrots can be taught to recite, monkeys can learn to make prostrations and you can teach a dog to beg, which makes it look as if it's praying. To avoid merely aping practice, listen and study the teachings well. Think about what you have learned until you gain a proper understanding and then familiarize yourself with it until it begins to influence how you think and feel. This will affect how you act and speak. When your physical, verbal and mental actions begin to accord with the Buddha's teachings, you will experience happiness and become a trustworthy example to others.     The Kadampa masters advised us to cultivate ten jewel-like attitudes. The first four of these attitudes concern four kinds of entrustment. The first is the innermost attitude of entrusting yourself completely to the teachings. To develop this attitude, consider the preciousness of your human life, the rarity of a life like this and how meaningful it is in terms of your potential. How brief life is! You have no idea when you will die. It can happen at any moment and at that time neither your possessions, friends nor even your body can help or save you. Nothing but the teachings is of any use then.     Seen from that perspective, accumulating wealth and property and trying to surround yourself with the right friends or supporters is quite meaningless, since you can take none of these with you when you go. In trying to fulfill such desires, you perform many misdeeds whose consequences must be experienced in the future. You entrust yourself to the teachings by putting them at the heart of everything you think and do, by constantly trying to be positive and kind-hearted and by expressing this in action.     The second of these jewel-like attitudes is to entrust yourself to poverty in your practice of the teachings. You do not need to live a life of poverty, but if necessary you should be ready to do so by overcoming attachment to pleasurable sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations. This will bring you contentment. How can you hope to reconcile an unquenchable thirst for the best of these things, which consumes your attention and energy, with true practice?     Perhaps you fear that by putting the teachings at the center of your life, you will one day lack even the most basic amenities and become so poor that you will be forced to beg. But if you entrust yourself to poverty and summon up courage to devote all your energy to practicing the teachings come what may, paradoxically you will never lack what you need. The Buddha himself predicted that those of his followers who practiced with dedication would never die of starvation. There is a saying that if the meditator doesn't roll down the mountain, the food will roll up.     Before the Kadampa master Geshe Bengungyel reformed, he owned so many fields in Pempo that forty bags of barley seed were needed at sowing time. He robbed by day and thieved by night but never had enough to eat, yet when he began to practice the Buddha's teachings, he had more than enough. He said, "Before my mouth couldn't find food, but now the food can't find my mouth."     Pempo, where many of the Kadampa masters lived, has good fertile land. It was a custom in my part of Kham for the young women to go on pilgrimage before they got married. A group of them would secretly arrange to travel together and in the third or fourth Tibetan month they would slip away from home and set out on foot for central Tibet. They did not mind leaving the comforts of home behind to go on this adventure. They carried only a small pack and a big stick to keep off the dogs that guarded the houses where they begged for food and shelter along the way. Dogs in Tibet were big and fierce and it was their job to bite intruders, but two young women standing back to back with their sturdy sticks could fend off even the fiercest dog.     They reached Pempo in the sixth or seventh month and looked for work on the farms. When the harvest had been brought in, they were paid in barley. They then made their way to Lhasa where they sold half the barley and used the other half for tsampa. With this money and food they set out on pilgrimage for three months, visiting temples, monasteries and sacred places.     They returned to Lhasa just before the Tibetan New Year. Quite a few traders and merchants from my area of Kham lived in Lhasa. The young women would borrow good clothes from them and perform our local songs and dances, which these people living far from home thoroughly enjoyed. They would give the young women money with which to buy presents and a few useful things from the city before they began their long journey back to Kham.     This was the first independent action these young women had ever undertaken in their lives and though they left secretly, they had their parents' tacit permission because it was a long-standing custom. They returned proud of the pilgrimage they had made and happy to have visited the statue of the Buddha in the main temple in Lhasa, revered throughout Tibet as the "Wish-fulfilling Lord."     You may worry about the possibility that if you put nothing away for a rainy day and are reduced to penury, you might even die of starvation. Reflect on the fact that you have died countless times in the past but never once for the sake of the teachings. Everyone, whether rich or poor, must die eventually, so even if you were to die, this time it would be for a worthwhile reason. People create many harmful actions for the sake of wealth and it is better to die poor without having done such things. The third jewel-like attitude is to entrust yourself even to death from hunger or cold with the resolve never to stop practicing.     Now you might be anxious about who will look after you when you grow old and who will dispose of your body in the proper way when you die. Such worries reveal that you are still ensnared by worldly concerns. You may live to be old, but it is not at all certain. Shantideva says: Go to the cremation ground and think Those others' bones and my body Both have the nature to disintegrate And so one day they will be alike. He tells us to go and look at the bleached bones lying there. Once they were part of others' bodies, cherished as we now cherish our own body, but those people had to part from their bodies which decayed and lacked independent existence. Our bodies are no different and one day the same thing will happen to us. Courageously entrust yourself to an empty cave, thinking even if for the sake of your practice you have to die alone like a dog far away from everyone in a desolate place, you will not be afraid or distressed. This is the fourth jewel-like attitude.     The Buddha's life teaches us about the four attitudes of entrustment. Leaving behind the luxury of his father's palace he adopted the simple life of an itinerant ascetic and devoted himself wholly to practice. He lived as a mendicant with no fear of poverty and undertook extremely austere practices for six years by the river Nairanjana, ready even to face death in a desolate place far from any habitation. This shows us the importance of complete trust and dedication.     When monks or nuns become ordained, they promise to make some radical changes: to leave behind family life and all signs of a secular life-style and to adopt the marks of an ordained person. They receive a religious name to remind them of this. During the ordination ceremony they are told that from then on they should live on alms, wear robes made of patched cloth and make do with ordinary or left-over medicines when they are sick, instead of seeking expensive remedies and treatments. This denotes their willingness to die if necessary. They are to seek shelter under trees and in disused and ruined buildings. These precepts delineate an ideal of simplicity, but of course only a few practitioners have the stamina to adopt such a way of life. (Continues...) Excerpted from The Three Principal Aspects of the Path by . Copyright © 1999 by Ruth Sonam. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.