Teachings on Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment
December 10th – 12th, 2010, Bodhgaya
Live Translation: Ringu Tulku Rinpoche
MORNING SESSION Dec 10th
Compassion is the Essence of the Path
Transcript: Michele Martin
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.”