The Two Truths
by Denma Locho Rinpoche

I have been asked to give a talk on the Two Truths: the conventional or surface level of truth and the ultimate truth. Looking at it one way it seems as if I’ve already finished my teaching because there are just these two words: conventional and ultimate, and that’s finished! But in fact these two truths subsume within them all of Buddhism, so there is more to talk about than you’d find in a huge beak.

I ask all of you in this special place of Bodhgaya to bring up within you a special motivation. Every living creature, no matter who they are, are living creatures seeking happiness. At the same time they seek happiness, they are unaware of the cause of happiness, so call up this motivation: that to relieve them from their unhappiness, I must myself achieve all the wonderful qualities, all the excellence of an enlightened state, in order to teach them how to free themselves.

Living creatures, just like ourselves, are defined by seeking to avoid unpleasant, suffering situations, and seeking to place themselves in happy situations. Animals, from insects on up, have knowledge of methods to immediately remove suffering, they have this intelligence. The human being differs from the animal as they have the intelligence to take into account a much greater time span. They can begin to do things to alleviate states that they will otherwise experience a long time in the future — for example, getting a good education so we can find a job, make money, and live well in the future. At this point we are talking generally; spirituality hasn’t entered into the discussion at all.

If one performs wholesome deeds, one’s future will be in a happy state. If one has performed unwholesome deeds, one has set down the causes to find oneself in a state of woe. Spirituality then enters the thought process of a human being contemplating a future that goes beyond simple death.

Everything that the enlightened one spoke of leads back to the understanding of the two levels of truth. (This doesn’t mean there is no third truth, for example the Four Noble Truths and so on, so you can have sub-divisions.) Since you have two levels of reality, you have to have something being sub-divided, or categorized in two categories.

So you can ask yourself, “What is being sub-divided?” and the answer is knowables or objects of knowledge (Tibetan: she-ja). Here, a knowable is simply something that is existing. To exist means to be knowable, and to be knowable means to exist.

For example, I could have the idea of antlers on a rabbit — it could come up in my mind. I could fabricate this awareness, and in that sense rabbit’s antlers are something known but they certainly don’t exist. [The problem] here is that when you equate things that exist and things that are known, they are known by [a valid] awareness but not by [just any] awareness. In other words I could get out of this difficulty by saying that, true, rabbit’s antlers are known by [a particular person’s] awareness, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are known by awareness!

Ultimate truth, paramarthasatya, if you take the [Sanskrit] word apart is this: artha refers to that which is known; parama refers to that which knows its object, that is, the mind of a high spiritual being; satya means truth. It is truth because that which is known is true for that which knows its object, the mind of the high spiritual being, therefore, ultimate truth, an ultimate thing that is true.

So what about this other truth, the conventional, surface level of truth: how does one come to understand this second of the two truths if the ultimate reality is understood in this way? This is samvrtisatya. Samvrti is total covering up, and covering here means ordinary awareness covering that which is real. Here again satya is truth, but truth for an ordinary awareness. In other words, all the things that are true for ordinary minds like our own that are taken as real by them—are conventional truths, therefore, truth for an ordinary covering mind.

In the scholastic tradition we say that anything that is known will always be included in one of these two levels of reality. Anything not covered by these two levels is beyond the sphere of what is knowable. There is a deep logic here — that these two categories, the two truths, are an exhaustive description of all that there is.

Here is how it works. Truth and lie go together, don’t they? If a person makes a statement that mirrors reality, then that statement is true. However, a statement not mirroring reality is a lie.

The ultimate level of reality is mirrored in the mind of awareness that knows it, in a way that is not lying. This necessarily brings out the situation that all conventional truths are lying to the awareness that knows them, about the way they appear. Similarly, ordinary things appearing to ordinary awareness must be said to be lying to that ordinary awareness. You are, by removing that truth, positively showing the truth of the awareness of the ultimate. That ultimate, appearing to an awareness that knows it is not lying to that awareness, is the suchness of things—the ultimate reality of things.

So you have one being necessitated by another in a see-saw-like fashion, and from that account you can extrapolate out to show that it is a statement that is exhaustive of all knowables, of all that exists.

In Buddhist systems of ideas, there are many interpretations of what exactly these two levels of truth are. They are set forth as the four Buddhist schools of philosophy.

In the most profound school, the Middle Way Consequentialist school, just what is emptiness or the ultimate? It is this: that in fact nobody or nothing, anywhere, has anything that inherently makes it what it is. Nothing has its own personal mark. Everything exists simply through language, through ideas.

The absence of something, the total absence, the total not-being, non-existence of anything that is not there through the power of language and thought is shunyata, emptiness, the ultimate truth.

When one talks of an ultimate truth, of emptiness, one has a focus; one is looking at objects and finding them to be totally empty. What one is looking at and finding to be empty is very important. The identification of things first becomes an important thing to do because the ultimate truth isn’t something immediately apprehensible by our senses — we can’t see it. We have to arrive at it through our thought processes, and in order to do this we have to use reasoning. This reasoning takes as its point of departure certain things or bases, so we must identify these in the first instance.

Let’s start by trying to identify what are classically the most important of these bases, the five aggregates or skandas. In the Heart Sutra it says, “He looked and saw that the five aggregates are empty of inherent existence.” So if you don’t know what these five are, how can you look into the ultimate truth of them?

The five aggregates are: a great heap of physical things, a great heap of feelings, a great heap of discriminations, a great heap of created things (Sanskrit: samskara) and a great heap of awareness.

So then, one has heaps, aggregates, and these locate living creatures. Let’s take the aggregate of physical things, which can be further broken down into the external objective physical things and the internal subjective physical things. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations are the external or objective physical things in this great heap of physical things, while the five senses are the subjective or internal physical things.

The second heap is that of feelings. What are feelings? They are the experiences one gets out of things: pleasant experiences, neutral experiences and unpleasant ones.

The next heap is discrimination, which is defined as that part of the mind that functions to identify particular things as what they are.

The fourth aggregate of created things has most of the non-associated created things. It’s a catch-bag for everything not included in the other four heaps.

And what is the fifth heap? This is all our awarenesses or consciousness or thoughts. This is generally looked at as sense-based awareness coming from a thinking mind.

One can only focus on the reality of emptiness when one has seen the size, the dimensions, of what one is refuting or denying.

The Tibetan saint Tsongkhapa said, “Anything that is produced from conditions is never produced.” You can unpack this apparent paradox in this way. What you are saying is that nothing is produced as something that is independent; nothing is produced as something that is there under its own power. That’s what you are trying to demonstrate.

For example, a seedling isn’t produced as something there under its own power, as something that is inherently what it is. Why? Because it is produced from causes and conditions. That’s how you break down the meaning of the statement to formulate it as a reason for the hidden meaning, which is emptiness, to come clear to the mind.

Lama Tsongkhapa writes in his famous Praise to Dependent Arising, “What is more amazing, what better way of expressing a reality has ever been found? Namely that anything that depends on conditions is empty.”

There are many different reasons a person can use to come to understand emptiness. But here we meet with the king of all reasonings—dependent arising—because being produced or arising dependently is the reason for everything’s emptiness. Using this reason, one avoids the extreme of nihilism, because dependent arising shows something is there; nevertheless, because it is a reason that shows emptiness it also removes eternalism.

As the great Aryadeva said, “Anyone who gets a view into one reality gets a view into all realities.” What he is saying is that if one plumbs the depths of reality of anything, one doesn’t need to go through the whole process again with another object. Just bringing to the mind the reality you’ve seen in one object or person, and turning the mind to another, you will look at its reality as well.

That’s why every one of our sadhanas without exception starts with the mantra that means “Om, this is purity, all Dharmas are pure, I am that purity.” Before doing any sadhana one brings to mind this fact of the ultimate reality — of emptiness.

To be virtuous doesn’t simply mean to wear yellow robes; it means to fear the ripening of karma. To be a spiritual friend doesn’t just mean to assume a dignified demeanour; it means to be the glorious protector of everyone. To be a yogi doesn’t mearly mean to behave crudely; it means to mingle one’s mind with the nature of dharmata.

— Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche




出家后不久,我进入苏州灵岩山佛学院学习。佛学院所开设的课程以净土宗为主,同时兼顾各种宗派和教典。那时,教净土的法师在介绍净土宗发展历史时,不仅向我们介绍了西方念佛净土、东方药师净土,还向我们讲述弥勒净土的内容及修学方法。在课余时间,我从图书馆借阅了一些介绍弥勒净土的经典来阅读。在佛学院的几年中,我先后阅读了一些关于弥勒菩萨转世为布袋和尚的典籍。知道弥勒菩萨在浙江奉化所应化的布袋和尚,法名契此,是唐五代时的高僧。他平时携带一个大布袋,袒露着大肚子,整天乐呵呵地四处化缘,无论别人给他什么,他都欢喜收下,然后分施给那些需要的人。布袋和尚常以慈悲心度化众生,从不计较别人对自己的是非过恶。他展示给众生的慈悲、忍辱、宽容、欢喜等德行,不仅给人以为人处世的启示,而且也是一个学佛者悟道成佛必须具备的品格修养。布袋和尚不仅常以充满禅机的方式接引学徒,而且还经常为人勘验吉凶祸福, 无不灵验。梁贞明二年(916年)三月三日,布袋和尚圆寂于奉化岳林寺,寂前留下一偈:“弥勒真弥勒,分身千百亿。时时示世人,世人自不识。”人们这才知道布袋和尚原是弥勒菩萨化身,于是人们称他为“欢喜佛”。从此,汉传佛教寺院就将布袋和尚供奉于寺院的天王殿中,接引十方前来朝拜的客人。有的弥勒道场,还专门建造了专门供奉弥勒菩萨的弥勒殿。

布袋和尚住世时,创作有大量的偈颂,这些偈颂不仅宣扬弥勒净土思想和修学方法,更多的是人生的启示,教育人在日常生活中要学会慈悲、忍辱、宽容,做到对待他人不念旧恶,对待自己不忘初心。如《 插秧诗》云:“手把青秧插野田,低头便见水中天。六根清净方为道,退后原来是向前。”诗歌以农民插秧为喻,指出一个人在与人相处时,能够对人退让一步,并非说明你懦弱,恰恰说明你的忍让与宽容。《 忍辱偈》更将布袋和尚忍辱发挥到极限,“有人骂老拙,老拙只说好;有人打老拙,老拙自睡倒;唾涕在面上,任他自干了。他也省力气,我也没烦恼……”通过对布袋和尚生平传记和楹联偈颂的阅读,我深深感到,布袋和尚于人间示现,不仅开示世人修学弥勒净土的方法,更主要的还在于教会世人为人处世的道理。在布袋和尚看来,做人是学佛的基础和前提,只有人做好了,才有可能在修学上取得更大成就。太虚大师的“人成即佛成,是名真现实”,正是对布袋和尚人生佛教思想的最好诠释。



在修学弥勒经典过程中,我常会遇到诸多关于弥勒净土经典的诸多难以理解的术语。想向同修或高僧求教,但鉴于近代以来弥勒信仰的衰落,研究修习弥勒净土的人寥若晨星,想亲近对弥勒净土有心得体会的人也不容易。为了弄懂这些经文术语,我只有通过查阅《佛学大辞典》等来解决问题。遇到词典解决不了的问题,就查阅太虚大师的《弥勒上生经讲记》和《弥勒下生经》讲记,仔细品味太虚大师对弥勒净土经典深入浅出的讲解。经过多年对弥勒净土经典系统的学习与研修,对《弥勒上生经》和《弥勒下生经》 等经典中阐述的弥勒净土思想,也逐渐有了自己的体会。



经过二十多年修学弥勒净土,我从对弥勒净土一无所知,到如今有了粗浅的理解。在修学实践中,我深深体悟到弥勒净土在净化人心,开启众生智慧的重要作用。因而,总会在各种弘法时机,向信众宣扬。 虽然个人力量十分有限,但品尝法海一滴,也能使人感知法味之乐,从而种下善根,增长菩提之果。

The Nirvana taught by Buddha is a state transcending all that is chaotic, noisy and binding, to reach a state of liberation and freedom that is tranquil and peaceful. This state of liberation and freedom marks the consummation of full Enlightenment in Buddhism. Nirvana is rich in content — being liberated from cyclic rebirths, that are rooted in ignorance and delusion, to gain liberation and freedom is based upon wisdom. Nirvana is also described as “uncompounded”, “non-arising” (non-abiding, non-extinction). This is because Buddha described all that is worldly as compounded, that is, its basic nature is arising and cessation caused by delusion and intentional actions. Such arising and cessation is characterised by chaos, relativity and bondage. Once one has effected a breakthrough from such conditioned arising and cessation that is characterised by vexation, discrimination and bondage, one attains the state that is ineffable and indescribable, but provisionally called the unconditioned Nirvana with no arising and no extinction.

— Venerable Yin Shun

Method, Wisdom and the Three Paths
by Geshe Lhundub Sopa


The great eleventh century Indian master Atisha said,

Human life is short,
Objects of knowledge are many.
Be like a swan,
Which can separate milk from water.

Our lives will not last long and there are many directions in which we can channel them. Just as swans extract the essence from milk and spit out the water, so should we extract the essence from our lives by practicing discriminating wisdom and engaging in activities that benefit both ourselves and others in this and future lives.

Every sentient being aspires to the highest state of happiness and complete freedom from every kind of suffering, but human aims should be higher than those of animals, insects and so forth because we have much greater potential; with our special intellectual capacity we can accomplish many things. As spiritual practitioners, we should strive for happiness and freedom from misery not for ourselves alone but for all sentient beings. We have the intelligence and the ability to practice the methods for realising these goals. We can start from where we are and gradually attain higher levels of being until we attain final perfection. Some people can even attain the highest goal, enlightenment, in a single lifetime.

In the Bodhicaryavatara, the great yogi and bodhisattva Shantideva wrote,

Although we want all happiness,
We ignorantly destroy it, like an enemy.
Although we want no misery,
We rush to create its cause.

What we want and what we do are totally contradictory. The things we do to bring happiness actually cause suffering, misery and trouble. Shantideva says that even though we desire happiness, out of ignorance we destroy its cause as if it were our worst enemy.

According to the Buddha’s teachings, first we must learn, or study. By asking if it’s possible to escape from suffering and find perfect happiness, we open the doors of spiritual inquiry and discover that by putting our effort and wisdom in the right direction, we can indeed experience such goals. This leads us to seek out the path to enlightenment. The Buddha set forth many different levels of teachings. As humans, we can learn these, not just for the sake of learning but in order to put the methods into practice.


What is the cause of happiness? What is the cause of misery? These are important questions in Buddhism. The Buddha pointed out that the fundamental source of all our problems is the wrong conception of the self. We always hold on to some kind of “I,” some sort of egocentric thought, or attitude, and everything we do is based on this wrong conception of the nature of the self. This self-grasping gives rise to attachment to the “I” and self-centeredness, the cherishing of ourselves over all others, all worldly thoughts, and samsara itself. All sentient beings’ problems start here.

This ignorant self-grasping creates all of our attachment to the “I.” From “me” comes “mine” — my property, my body, my mind, my family, my friends, my house, my country, my work and so forth.

From attachment come aversion, anger and hatred for the things that threaten our objects of attachment. Buddhism calls these three — ignorance, attachment and aversion — the three poisons. These delusions are the cause of all our problems; they are our real enemies.

We usually look for enemies outside but Buddhist yogis realise that there are no external enemies; the real enemies are within. Once we have removed ignorance, attachment and aversion we have vanquished our inner enemies. Correct understanding replaces ignorance, pure mind remains, and we see the true nature of the self and all phenomena. The workings of the illusory world no longer occur.

When ignorance has gone, we no longer create mistaken actions. When we act without mistake, we no longer experience the various sufferings — the forces of karma are not engaged. Karma — the actions of the body, speech and mind of sentient beings, together with the seeds they leave on the mind — is brought under control. Since the causes of these actions — ignorance, attachment and aversion — have been destroyed, the actions to which they give rise therefore cease.

Ignorance, attachment and aversion, together with their branches of conceit, jealousy, envy and so forth, are very strong forces. Once they arise, they immediately dominate our mind; we quickly fall under the power of these inner enemies and no longer have any freedom or control. Our inner enemies even cause us to fight with and harm the people we love; they can even cause us to kill our own parents, children and so forth. All conflicts — from those between individual members of a family to international wars between countries — arise from these negative thoughts.

Shantideva said, “There is one cause of all problems.” This is the ignorance that mistakes the actual nature of the self. All sentient beings are similar in that they are all overpowered by this ego-grasping ignorance; however, each of us is also capable of engaging in the yogic practices that refine the mind to the point where it is able to see directly the way things exist.


Buddha himself first studied, then practiced, and finally realised Dharma, achieving enlightenment. He saw the principles of the causes and effects of thought and action and then taught people how to work with these laws in such a way as to gain freedom.

His first teaching was on the four truths as seen by a liberated being: suffering, its cause, liberation and the path to liberation. First we must learn to recognise the sufferings and frustrations that pervade our lives. Then we must know their cause. Thirdly we should know that it is possible to get rid of them, to be completely free. Lastly we must know the truth of the path — the means by which we can gain freedom, the methods of practice that destroy the seeds of suffering from their very root.

There are many elaborate ways of presenting the path, which has led to the development of many schools of Buddhism, such as the Hinayana and Mahayana, but the teachings of the four truths are fundamental to all Buddhist schools; each has its own special methods, but all are based on the four truths. Without the four truths there is neither Hinayana nor Mahayana. All Buddhist schools see suffering as the main problem of existence and ignorance as the main cause of suffering. Without removing ignorance there is no way of achieving liberation from samsara and no way of attaining the perfect enlightenment of buddhahood.


Buddhism talks a lot about non-self or the empty nature of all things. This is a key teaching. The realisation of emptiness was first taught by the Buddha and then widely disseminated by the great teacher Nagarjuna and his successors, who explained the philosophy of the Middle Way—a system of thought free from all extremes. Madhyamikas, as the followers of this system are called, hold that the way things actually exist is free from the extremes of absolute being and non-being; the things we see do not exist in the way that we perceive them.

As for the “I,” our understanding of its nature is also mistaken. This doesn’t mean that there is neither person nor desire. When the Buddha rejected the existence of a self he meant that the self we normally conceive does not exist. Yogis who, through meditation, have developed higher insight have realised the true nature of the self and seen that the “I” exists totally in another way. They have realised the emptiness of the self, which is the key teaching of the Buddha; they have developed the sharp weapon of wisdom that cuts down the poisonous tree of delusion and mental distortion.

To do the same, we must study the teachings, contemplate them carefully and finally investigate our conclusions through meditation. In that way we can realise the true nature of the self. The wisdom realising emptiness cuts the very root of all delusion and puts an end to all suffering; it directly opposes the ignorance that misconceives reality.

Sometimes we can apply more specific antidotes — for example, when anger arises we meditate on compassion; when lust arises we meditate on the impurity of the human body; when attachment to situations arises we meditate on impermanence; and so forth. But even though these antidotes counteract particular delusions they cannot cut their root — for that, we need to realise emptiness.


However, wisdom alone is not enough. No matter how sharp an axe is, it requires a handle and a person to swing it. In the same way, while meditation on emptiness is the key practice, it must be supported and given direction by method. Many Indian masters, including Dharmakirti and Shantideva, have asserted this to be so. For example, meditation upon the four noble truths includes contemplation of sixteen aspects of these truths, such as impermanence, suffering, and so forth. Then, because we must share our world with others there are the meditations on love, compassion and the bodhicitta, the enlightened attitude of wishing for enlightenment in order to be of greatest benefit to others. This introduces the six perfections, or the means of accomplishing enlightenment — generosity, discipline, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom. The first five of these must act as supportive methods in order for the sixth, wisdom, to become stable.


To attain buddhahood the obstacles to the goal have to be completely removed. These obstacles are of two main types: obstacles to liberation, which include the delusions such as attachment, and obstacles to omniscience. When the various delusions have been removed, one becomes an arhat. In Tibetan, arhat [dra-chom-pa] means one who has destroyed [chom] the inner enemy [dra] and has thus gained liberation from all delusions. However, such liberation is not buddhahood.

An arhat is free from samsara, from all misery and suffering, and no longer forced to take a rebirth conditioned by karma and delusion. At present we are strongly under the power of these two forces, being reborn again and again, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. We have little choice or independence in our birth, life, death and rebirth. Negative karma and delusion combine and overpower us again and again. Our freedom is thus greatly limited. It is a circle: occasionally rebirth in a high realm, then in a low world; sometimes an animal, sometimes a human or a god. This is what samsara means. Arhats have achieved complete liberation from this circle; they have broken the circle and gone beyond it. Their lives have become totally pure, totally free. The forces that controlled them have gone and they dwell in a state of emancipation from compulsive experience. Their realisation of shunyata is complete.

On the method side, the arhat has cultivated a path combining meditation on emptiness with meditation on the impermanence of life, karma and its results, the suffering nature of the whole circle of samsara and so forth, but arhatship does not have the perfection of buddhahood.

Compared to our ordinary samsaric life, arhatship is a great attainment, but arhats still have subtle obstacles. Gross mental obstacles such as desire, hatred, ignorance and so forth may have gone but, because they have been active forces within the mind for so long, they leave behind subtle hindrances — subtle habits, or predispositions.

For example, although arhats will not have anger, old habits, such as using harsh words, may persist. They also have a very subtle self-centeredness. Similarly, although arhats will not have ignorance or wrong views, they will not see certain aspects of cause and effect as clearly as a buddha does. Such subtle limitations are called the obstacles to omniscience. In buddhahood, these have been completely removed; not a single obstacle remains. There is both perfect freedom and perfect knowledge.


A buddha has a cause. The cause is a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva trainings are vast: generosity, where we try to help others in various ways; patience, which keeps our mind in a state of calm; diligent perseverance, with which, in order to help other sentient beings, we joyfully undergo the many hardships without hesitation; and many others.

Before attaining buddhahood we have to train as a bodhisattva and cultivate a path uniting method with wisdom. The function of wisdom is to eliminate ignorance; the function of method is to produce the physical and environmental perfections of being.

Buddhahood is endowed with many qualities — perfect body and mind, omniscient knowledge, power and so forth — and from the perfection of the inner qualities a buddha manifests a perfect environment, a “pure land.”

With the ripening of wisdom and method comes the fruit: the wisdom and form bodies of a buddha. The form body, or rupakaya, has two dimensions — sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya — which, with the wisdom body of dharmakaya, constitute the three kayas. The form bodies are not ordinary form; they are purely mental, a reflection or manifestation of the dharmakaya wisdom. From perfect wisdom emerges perfect form.


As we can see from the above examples, the bodhisattva’s activities are based on a motivation very unlike our ordinary attitudes, which are usually selfish and self-centered. In order to attain buddhahood we have to change our mundane thoughts into thoughts of love and compassion for other sentient beings. We have to learn to care, all of the time, on a universal level. Our normal self-centered attitude should be seen as an enemy and a loving and compassionate attitude as the cause of the highest happiness, a real friend of both ourselves and others.

The Mahayana contains a very special practice called “exchanging self for others.” Of course, I can’t change into you or you can’t change into me; that’s not what it means. What we have to change is the attitude of “me first” into the thought of cherishing of others: “Whatever bad things have to happen let them happen to me.” Through meditation we learn to regard self-centeredness as our worst enemy and to transform self-cherishing into love and compassion, until eventually our entire life is dominated by these positive forces. Then everything we do will become beneficial to others; all our actions will naturally become meritorious. This is the influence and power of the bodhisattva’s thought — the bodhi mind, the ultimate flowering of love and compassion into the inspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all other sentient beings.


Love and compassion have the same basic nature but a different reference or application. Compassion is mainly in reference to the problems of beings, the wish to free sentient beings from suffering, whereas love refers to the positive side, the aspiration that all sentient beings have happiness and its cause. Our love and compassion should be equal towards all beings and have the intensity that a loving mother feels towards her only child, taking upon ourselves full responsibility for the well-being of others. That’s how bodhisattvas regard all sentient beings.

However, the bodhi mind is not merely love and compassion. Bodhisattvas see that in order to free sentient beings from misery and give them the highest happiness, they themselves will have to be fully equipped, fully qualified — first they will have to attain perfect buddhahood, total freedom from all obstacles and limitations and complete possession of all power and knowledge. Right now we can’t do much to benefit others. Therefore, for the benefit of other sentient beings, we have to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible. Day and night, everything we do should be done in order to reach perfect enlightenment as soon as we can for the benefit of others.


The thought characterised by this aspiration is called bodhicitta, bodhi mind, the bodhisattva spirit. Unlike our usual self-centered, egotistical thoughts, which lead only to desire, hatred, jealousy, pride and so forth, the bodhisattva way is dominated by love, compassion and the bodhi mind, and if we practice the appropriate meditative techniques, we ourselves will become bodhisattvas. Then, as Shantideva has said, all our ordinary activities — sleeping, walking, eating or whatever — will naturally produce limitless goodness and fulfill the purposes of many sentient beings.


A bodhisattva’s life is very precious and therefore, in order to sustain it, we sleep, eat and do whatever else is necessary to stay alive. Because this is our motivation for eating, every mouthful of food we take gives rise to great merit, equal to the number of the sentient beings in the universe.

In order to ascend the ten bodhisattva stages leading to buddhahood we engage in both method and wisdom: on the basis of bodhicitta we cultivate the realisation of emptiness. Seeing the emptiness of the self, our self-grasping ignorance and attachment cease. We also see all phenomena as empty and, as a result, everything that appears to our mind is seen as illusory, like a magician’s creations.

When a magician conjures up something up, the audience believes that what they see exists. The magician, however, although sees what the audience sees, understands it differently. When he creates a beautiful woman, the men in the audience experience lust; when he creates a frightening animal, the audience gets scared. The magician sees the beautiful woman and the scary animals just as the audience does but he knows that they’re not real, he knows that they’re empty of existing in the way that they appear — their reality is not like the mode of their appearance.

Similarly, bodhisattvas who have seen emptiness see everything as illusory and things that might have caused attachment or aversion to arise in them before can no longer do so.

As Nagarjuna said,

By combining the twofold cause of method and wisdom, bodhisattvas gain the twofold effect of the mental and physical bodies [rupakaya and dharmakaya] of a buddha.

Their accumulation of meritorious energy and wisdom bring them to the first bodhisattva stage, where they directly realise emptiness and overcome the obstacles to liberation. They then use this realisation to progress through the ten bodhisattva levels, eventually eradicating all obstacles to omniscience. They first eliminate the coarse level of ignorance and then, through gradual meditation on method combined with wisdom, attain the perfection of enlightenment.


The main subjects of this discourse — renunciation, emptiness and the bodhi mind — were taught by the Buddha, Nagarjuna and Tsongkhapa and provide the basic texture of the Mahayana path. These three principal aspects of the path are like keys for those who want to attain enlightenment. In terms of method and wisdom, renunciation and the bodhi mind constitute method and meditation on emptiness is wisdom. Method and wisdom are like the two wings of a bird and enable us to fly high in the sky of Dharma. Just as a bird with one wing cannot fly; in order to reach the heights of buddhahood we need the two wings of method and wisdom.


The principal Mahayana method is the bodhi mind. To generate the bodhi mind we must first generate compassion — the aspiration to free sentient beings from suffering, which becomes the basis of our motivation to attain enlightenment. However, as Shantideva pointed out, we must begin with compassion for ourselves. We must want to be free of suffering ourselves before being truly able to want it for others. The spontaneous wish to free ourselves from suffering is renunciation.

But most of us don’t have it. We don’t see the faults of samsara. However, there’s no way to really work for the benefit of others while continuing to be entranced by the pleasures and activities of samsara. Therefore, first we have to generate personal renunciation of samsara — the constant wish to gain freedom from all misery. At the beginning, this is most important. Then we can extend this quality to others as love, compassion and the bodhi mind, which combine as method. When united with the wisdom realising emptiness, we possess the main causes of buddhahood.


Of course, to develop the three principal aspects of the path, we have to proceed step by step. Therefore it’s necessary to study, contemplate and meditate. We should all try to develop a daily meditation practice. Young or old, male or female, regardless of race, we all have the ability to meditate. Anybody can progress through the stages of understanding. The human life is very meaningful and precious but it can be lost to seeking temporary goals such as sensual indulgence, fame, reputation and so forth, which benefit this life alone. Then we’re like animals; we have the goals of the animal world. Even if we don’t make heroic spiritual efforts, we should at least try to get started in the practices that make human life meaningful.

Whatever temporary goals you may set, with bodhichitta they’ll come through effortlessly. And, your ultimate goal of bringing all sentient beings to enlightenment will also come along through the force of bodhichitta. Once you’ve developed engaged bodhichitta, you continually accumulate vast merits and purify negativities whether you’re sleeping, walking, eating, meditating, or doing other activities. And, you should understand that if you put the right effort into the correct meditation methods for generating this, there’s absolutely no reason why you should not succeed in realising bodhichitta in your own mind!

— Ribur Rinpoche