The Path
by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

Before I get into the body of instructions on the bodhisattva trainings, I want to give an overview of the whole Buddhist path. The Buddhist teachings can be divided into two categories. In the first are the Buddha’s own words spoken during his lifetime, as recorded in the sutras, called kha in Tibetan. Then there are the commentaries that were written by Buddha’s disciples — arhats and the great mahapanditas of the noble land of India, such as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, and Vasubandhu. The texts they composed, elucidating the Buddha’s teachings, are collectively known as tencho in Tibetan or shastra in Sanskrit. Whether it is the kha, Buddha’s teachings in his own words, or the tencho, the words of his disciples, the great teachers of India, Tibet, or any other place, all Buddhist teachings fall into three categories: Vinaya, Sutra, and Abhidharma.

All teachings have two qualities. The first is that they protect the student by providing the intelligence, wisdom, and skillful means to prevent the individual from taking a rebirth in the lower realms. In other words, they help whoever studies them to reduce the afflictive emotions and their cause, the tendency towards clinging to the self, and the root cause of that, which is ignorance. If the teachings don’t affect the mind in this way, then they will not protect beings from falling down into the lower realms. Teachings must have the quality of remedying confused mind. The second quality of the teachings is the capacity to bring the student to higher realms and a greater appreciation of his or her own nature, an understanding of and ability to rely on these exalted characteristics. So these are the two qualities of the teachings: protecting us from our disturbing emotions and how these can bring us down; and illuminating and thus helping us appreciate our own nature and its qualities.

The three categories of the teachings Vinaya, Sutra, and Abhidharma — form the path to realisation. Essentially, to obtain enlightenment we need discipline, meditation, and wisdom. Without discipline and a change in our approach to life, we, as confused sentient beings, will always do the same thing and jeopardise our own freedom and happiness. Therefore, the Vinaya must be practised. Vinaya is basically taking a vow, be it Hinayana, Mahayana, or Vajrayana. These vows protect us. These vows guard us against indulging in our habits. The vows are mindfulness practice. By following the precepts, we train our being in a new approach. We train ourselves to refrain from past negative habits, and then through the vow and precepts we practice to increase and discipline ourselves in positive actions.

The Vinaya teachings are the follow-up to teachings on karma. We try to distance ourselves from karma that is unfavourable to us. We need to have some discipline to do so. We try to engage in karma that is positive to our well-being and our future lives. We endeavour to learn how to engage more efficiently and precisely. We must practice the Vinaya to attain enlightenment. Whether it is in the Hinayana, Mahayana, or Vajrayana, everyone must practice the Vinaya, the teachings of discipline. Without discipline, there is no leap to enlightenment. That is why the teachings of the Buddha and his disciples all fall in one way into the Vinaya.

The second category is the Sutra teachings. These include instructions on meditation: how to cultivate skillful means in order to get a clear, deep insight into one’s nature, as well as how to cultivate the enlightened qualities that our nature offers. We are taught to skillfully follow the tradition of the various methods discovered by the Buddha. The instructions open up many possibilities for a more efficient and greater meditation practice that removes ignorance and obscurations. Hence our nature can then outshine the obscurations and purify them. All of these teachings are called Sutra teachings. We can have very profound discipline, but without meditation the path to enlightenment is incomplete. The Sutra teachings are thus the second category of the teachings of the Buddha.

The final category is the Abhidharma. Abhidharma is made up of true statements of how things actually are, in both the absolute and relative sense. It consists of teachings on the wisdom aspect — discovering the wisdom within our mind. How things are in the absolute sense is shunyata, empty of any true existence. How things are in the relative sense is illusory. Samsara begins with the illusion; nirvana is the cessation of that illusion. The teachings explain how to realise illusion as illusion, and how to end illusion and come to fully experience the cessation of that, which is nirvana itself. Nirvana is constantly present and constantly unchanging. It’s always present while the illusion is happening, in the same way that a white screen remains unchangingly present even as all the colours of the movie continue to play on its surface.

Discipline is very important, therefore, in the Vinaya teachings. Meditation is also very important, hence the Sutra teachings. Wisdom is very important to enlightenment, thence the Abhidharma teachings. From this perspective, we see the three kinds of training needed on the path to enlightenment: training in discipline, meditation, and wisdom.

There is yet another way of categorising the Buddha’s teachings, namely in terms of scriptural teachings and realisation teachings. The scriptural teachings are found in books: They are the teachings that are explained by the teacher, the teachings that you read, hear, study, and contemplate. Essentially, these have more to do with the relative aspect of truth. The teachings of realisation are on the essential awareness that actually brings the individual to a state of nirvana. That is the recognition of shunyata itself, egolessness, the realisation of the absolute state. The absolute state, nature, or truth is the nature of all phenomena. Nirvana is always pure, never changing. It is the absence of confused perception or delusion. Even though in the absolute nirvana is unchanging, individual beings who are confused, caught up in the relative mind of obscurations, do not benefit from absolute truth or nirvana. However, the fundamental nature of absolute truth or nirvana provides the possibility for the deluded individual to slowly and gradually wake up to the truth by purifying obscurations and ignorance.

Prior to that point, the ground of enlightenment is in all beings, but the path has not begun. When the process of awakening begins, one has entered the path. When an individual has completely gone through the process of waking up to the absolute truth, that person literally possesses the nirvana that was always there but was not actualised. When the obscurations are no longer a hindrance to seeing the absolute nature, you repossess what was innately present. Now you can fully engage with nirvana. This is the ultimate destiny for all beings, because everyone is seeking nirvana.

Maitreya Buddha has said that all sentient beings possess the instinctive longing for freedom from pain, the instinctive longing for happiness. This instinctive longing for happiness, for freedom from pain and suffering, is the intuitive intelligence of the buddha nature present in all beings expressing itself. Otherwise, how could an instinct exist if it had no way to express itself? If there were no way to find ultimate happiness or freedom, why would that instinct exist in the first place? Right up until the point of complete nirvana that instinct is unfulfilled. No ultimate happiness is achieved, since one has not completely freed oneself from pain and the cause of pain.

The ultimate destiny of all beings is enlightenment. It is always present, but because we are confused and totally overwhelmed by delusion, the natural nirvana of the enlightened nature remains only a disposition. By disposition I mean a propensity to slowly and gradually work to fulfil a particular destiny. The disposition of an apple seed, for example, is to become an apple tree. The minds of all sentient beings have the disposition to become enlightened, and the intuitive, intelligent aspect of this is expressed by their longing for happiness and freedom from suffering — but just that alone is not going to do it.

We need more clarity, understanding, and realisation of the truth, the wisdom aspect. Then we need meditation to purify the obscurations and habits. We also need the Vinaya, the discipline to do this. The essence of the Dharma is the realisation of suchness, of the natural nirvana. This is free of concepts. It is the experience of the truth. Concepts point us in the right direction, but concepts themselves are dualistic, and thus are blind to the actual truth itself. When we don’t completely shed all our concepts and instead engage in them, we are in relative mind, not absolute mind.

Realisation of the absolute truth that resides in the minds of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and great masters is always free of concepts. In this state there is no arising, dwelling, or ceasing. Concepts, however, have arising, dwelling, and ceasing. The scriptural Dharma is conceptual, but we need it in order to get to the ultimate realisation. The scriptural Dharma, its study and contemplation, is like a bridge. Once you’ve crossed the bridge, you no longer need it, because you’ve gotten to where you wanted to go. However, even when you don’t need the bridge for yourself, it can be important for others. Similarly, scriptural Dharma is very important in communicating with others.

Now, a bodhisattva is an individual who has come onto the path to enlightenment, and has achieved partial purification and partial obtainment of the enlightened qualities. Entering the path of the bodhisattva is the beginning of the ripening of the seed of enlightened mind. Until that happens, there is not even the ability to hear this truth. Even if you happen to hear about it, you won’t believe it, because you are simply not interested. When there is interest in not only hearing of it but in deeply believing it, this is the time of awakening. From the time of the seed’s awakening all the way up until full enlightenment is the bodhisattva path. In the path of the bodhisattva, there are five paths and ten bhumis. The five paths are the path of accumulation, the path of engagement, the path of seeing, the path of meditation, and the path of no more learning.

The path of accumulation is when one actually, seriously, and deeply turns away from ignorance and the cause of suffering and generates the aspiration to be enlightened. This enlightenment is not sought after for oneself, but for the benefit of all sentient beings, so that they themselves may attain freedom from suffering and enlightenment. When such an aspiration for enlightenment is given birth to and is then supported by one or many positive actions, this is the outset of the path of accumulation. On the path of accumulation the seed of awakening is planted, through the hearing, contemplating, and meditating wisdom. Through these three aspects one gains more insight. The power of these is called merit, which will bring one to real experience. On the path of engagement, one actually learns about the absolute truth and has an understanding of the view of emptiness through meditation. This understanding or experience of the ultimate truth of shunyata is not completely naked or clear. It is more of an intellectual understanding than a true experience of shunyata or egolessness. But the way to the direct experience of shunyata is via the path of engagement. The path of engagement involves a sense of making shunyata your life.

On the path of seeing, the way has started to become your life. During this path, there is the beginning of maturation, which unfolds in the path of meditation. The path of meditation is the maturation of directly realising shunyata. One experiences all phenomena as illusory, as a means to perfect one’s enlightened activities to benefit beings.

There are two kinds of obscurations that need to be purified on the path to enlightenment: the emotional obscurations and the cognitive obscurations. Emotional obscurations are the five disturbing emotions of passion, aggression, stupidity, jealousy, and arrogance and all their various aspects. The reason they are called emotional obscurations is because our emotions are involved, and also because they come from a sense of clinging to a self. How are they obscurations? When we are engaged in, say, anger, we lose clarity; caught up in the experience of anger, our clarity is blocked. We lose not only the experience of truth, but of any opportunity to realise the truth.

The cognitive obscurations are basically dualistic mind — mind that actually believes things to be real, that believes subjective mind to be real, the objective world to be real, mind that believes there is some kind of intrinsic nature or existence to everything. The cognitively obscured mind does not see all things as illusory or dreamlike. It sincerely believes that this table is real, this book is real, this statue is real, this cup is real, this hand is real — that every aspect of one’s feelings and perceptions is real. Believing something to be real is the fundamental cognitive obscuration, which prevents one from seeing the illusory nature of things, their ultimate emptiness.

The emotional obscurations are purified on the path of seeing. Then it takes ten bhumis to purify the cognitive obscurations. The view of the absolute truth of shunyata or egolessness that one sees on the path of seeing is increased on the path of meditation. There is nothing new on the path of meditation in terms of seeing, but one’s perspective or experience of it is increased and strengthened, like a waxing moon that over time increases its light and clarifies the darkness.

Likewise, what you experience on the path of seeing is the absolute truth of egolessness, the experience of which increases over time and thus purifies the obscurations. When all the obscurations, both emotional and cognitive, are purified, you have attained Buddhahood. At this point you have accomplished the final path, the path of no more learning. You know the absolute truth as well as the entire variety of things there are to know. You have two wisdoms: the wisdom of knowing the absolute truth, the suchness aspect, and the wisdom of knowing everything there is to know.

To sum up, the bodhisattva path consists of five paths and ten bhumis. In all of these five paths and ten bhumis, the main thing the bodhisattva actually practices is bodhichitta.

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