Homage to Manjushri.
The first verse includes three things. First there is homage to the Triple Gem: the buddhas of the three times, the oral teachings and realization of them, and the sangha those who have received the unshakable, or noble, path. Second, he mentions that his pure disciple, Jangchub O, requested him to give this teaching. Third, he makes the promise, or vow, to write this teaching, this lamp for the path to enlightenment, the Lam-drön.
In the second verse, Atisha explains what he’s going to write about: the graduated paths of the persons of least, intermediate and supreme capacity, or capability. These are also the paths that Lama Tsongkhapa explains in his short, middle-length and great lam-rim teachings the graduated paths of these three types of practitioner.
Of the three levels of follower, Atisha first explains the graduated path of those of least capacity. Such people think, “I don’t care what suffering or happiness I experience in this life; I must avoid rebirth in the lower realms and attain an upper rebirth.” With this in mind, practitioners of least capacity abstain from negative actions and practice virtue.
Persons of intermediate capacity develop aversion to not only the sufferings of the three lower realms but also to those of the three upper realms; to the whole of samsara. Such practitioners abstain from negative actions in order to free themselves from samsara, without much concern for other sentient beings.
Who, then, are the beings of greatest capacity? They are those who, having understood their own suffering, take it as an example of the suffering that other beings are also experiencing and generate the great wish of wanting to put an end to the suffering of all sentient beings.
There are six preparatory practices. First, visualize the merit field and make offerings. Then kneel down with your hands in prostration and take refuge in the Triple Gem. After that, generate love for other sentient beings by thinking of the sufferings of death, old age, sickness and rebirth as well as the three sufferings and the general suffering of samsara. In that way, generate bodhicitta.
It is necessary to generate the aspiration to attain enlightenment, and the benefits of doing so have been explained in the sutra called Array of Trunks. Atisha also quotes three verses from another sutra, the Sutra Requested by Viradatta, to further explain the benefits of bodhicitta.
There are two types of bodhicitta, relative and absolute. Within the category of relative there are two further divisions, the bodhicitta of aspiration—wanting to receive enlightenment for the benefit of other sentient beings, thinking, “Without my receiving enlightenment, I cannot enlighten others”—and the bodhicitta of engagement, actually following the bodhisattva’s path by taking the bodhisattva precepts and engaging in the actions of a bodhisattva, thinking, “In order to engage in positive actions and avoid negative ones, I am going to practice the six perfections.”
The teachings explain that in order to practice engaged bodhicitta, we should take the bodhisattva ordination, but in order to do so we should hold one of the seven levels of pratimoksha ordination, such as gelong, gelongma, getsul, getsulma and so forth.4 Ideally, then, we should hold one of these fundamental ordinations before taking the bodhisattva vow, but the learned ones say that in general, those who avoid negative karma and create virtuous actions can actualize bodhicitta, even if they don’t hold any pratimoksha precepts.
The bodhicitta of aspiration can be generated without dependence upon a lama, but engaged bodhicitta depends on a lama. To find a lama from whom we can take the bodhisattva vow, we have to know the qualifications of such a lama.
First, the lama should know all about the ordination and how to bestow it. Furthermore, he should himself be living in the bodhisattva ordination and have compassion for the disciple. That’s the kind of lama we need to find from whom to take the ordination. But what if we can’t find a perfect lama like that? Atisha then goes on to explain what, in that case, we should do.
The Ornament of Manjushri’s Buddha Land Sutra explains how, long ago, Manjushri generated bodhicitta. This is what we can do. Visualize the merit field and all the buddhas and, in their presence, generate bodhicitta, the intention to attain enlightenment. Then promise, “I invite all sentient beings as my guest to the sublime happiness of liberation and enlightenment. I will not get angry or harbor avarice, covetousness, jealousy and so forth. I will not harm other sentient beings in any way. I will live in pure discipline by avoiding all negative actions, even worldly desires and sense objects of attachment, such as attractive sounds and beautiful forms and so forth. I shall give up such things. As all the buddhas have followed pure moral conduct, so shall I.
“I will not try to receive enlightenment for myself alone. Even though it takes an endless amount of time to work for even one sentient being, I shall remain in samsara. I shall make pure the impure realms of sentient beings, places where there are thorns, rocks and ugly mountains. I shall also purify my three doors of body, speech and mind and keep them pure. From now on, I will create no more negative actions.”
The best way to keep our three doors pure is to generate aspirational bodhicitta, engage in the practice of bodhicitta and follow the path to enlightenment. This depends on observing the three levels of moral conduct—the pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric vows. If we do this properly, we can complete the two collections of merit and transcendent wisdom.
One thing that really helps us complete these two collections is the ability to foresee the future; therefore, we should try to acquire clairvoyance. Without it, we are like a baby bird whose wings are undeveloped and has not yet grown feathers and remains stuck in its nest, unable to fly. Without clairvoyance, we cannot work for other sentient beings.
The person who has achieved the psychic power to foresee the future can create more merit in a day than a person without this ability can create in a hundred years. Therefore, to complete the collections of merit and transcendent wisdom quickly, it is necessary to acquire the psychic power to see past, present and future.
In order to do this, it is necessary to achieve single-pointed concentration For this, we must understand the details of the method of attaining samadhi, such as the nine stages, the six powers and the four mental engagements.
In order to practice samadhi meditation properly, we must ensure that the conditions are perfect. If they are not, then even though we try practicing it hard for even a thousand years, we’ll never achieve it. Therefore, we should find a perfect environment, remain quiet and avoid having to do work such as healing the ill and making astrological predictions—any activity that keeps us busy.
The way to meditate to attain single-pointed concentration is to focus our mind on a virtuous object, such as an image of the Buddha. We visualize such an image in front of us and simply concentrate on that. As we focus our mind on the object again and again, we’ll be able to hold it for increasingly greater periods of time, and through the continuity of such practice will eventually attain calm abiding [Skt: shamatha; Tib: shi-né] and single-pointed concentration. Thus we will gain “higher seeing” , the psychic power to see the future and so forth.
But that is not the point. Next we have to practice penetrative insight . Without it, our samadhi cannot remove our delusions. In order to eradicate our two levels of obscuration—the obscurations of delusion and the obscurations to knowledge, or omniscience We must achieve the wisdom realizing the non-self-existence of the I. Doing so also depends upon achieving method, such as compassion and so forth. It’s a mistake to practice only wisdom and not method. This can lead us to fall into individual liberation, or lower nirvana. Similarly, practicing only method and not wisdom is also a mistake and causes us to remain in samsara.
The Buddha taught that of the six perfections, the last of the six is the path of wisdom and the first five—charity, morality, patience, effort and concentration—are the path of method, or skillful means [Skt: upaya; Tib: thab]. First, we should meditate on method, then on wisdom, then on both together. By practicing both together, we can receive enlightenment; by practicing the wisdom of selflessness alone, we cannot.
Realizing the five aggregates , the twelve sources and the eighteen constituents as empty of self-existence is recognized as higher wisdom. There is existence and non-existence: there is no such thing as the production of the existent, nor is there such a thing as production of the non-existent. There is no such thing as production of both the existent and the non-existent, nor is there production of neither the existent nor the non-existent. That is one form of logic negating the production of both the existent and the non-existent. There is also another form of logic negating production of a thing from self, other, both or neither—the four extremes. The main thing to discover here is non-self-existence. That can be found through the first line of logical reasoning, which negates production of the existent and the non-existent, and through the second, which negates production of the four extremes.
It can also be discovered through a third line of reasoning that examines things to see whether they are one or many. These lines of reasoning are elaborated by Nagarjuna in his Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness and in other texts, such as his Treatise on the Middle Way.
These things are explained in those texts, but here they are mentioned just for the purpose of practicing meditation. Meditating on the non-self-existence of the I and the non-self-existence of all other phenomena is meditation on shunyata, or emptiness. When the wisdom realizing emptiness analyzes the subject and the object, it cannot discover self-existence in either of those. Moreover, it cannot find self-existence in the wisdom of emptiness. Thus, we realize the emptiness of even the wisdom of emptiness itself.
Since this world is created by superstition, or conceptuality, if we eradicate the creator, superstition, we can attain liberation. The Buddha said that it is superstition that causes us to fall into the ocean of samsara. Therefore, that which is to be avoided is superstition, but the emptiness of superstition, which is like the sky, like empty space, is that which is to be practiced. By achieving this, we will be able to see the absolute nature of existence. Therefore, the bodhisattvas’ practice is to avoid superstition and thus to achieve the non-superstitious mind. Through the various different means of logic—by realizing the emptiness of the produced and of inherent existence—we can avoid superstition and achieve the wisdom of shunyata.
Then we can also attain the different levels of the path of preparation , the second of the five paths. We attain the four levels of this path and gradually the ten bhumis or bodhisattva grounds, as well. Finally, we attain the eleventh level, enlightenment itself.
Having realized shunyata, we can also gain the general realizations of tantra, such as the four powers of pacification, wrath, control and increase, and other attainments, such as “accomplishing the good pot.” Accomplishing the good pot means doing a particular meditation in retreat for a long time and, if we are successful, gaining the ability to just put our mouth to the opening of a pot and say something like “May I become the king of this country” and have our wish fulfilled.
Or we can gain the tantric power of the “eye medicine.” If we accomplish this, just by applying a special ointment to our eye we can see things precious substances such as gold, jewels and so forth even hundreds of miles beneath the surface of the Earth; no matter how far away they are, we can see them.
Through the practice of tantra we can receive enlightenment without having to undergo many great austerities. The tantric way to enlightenment is through happiness; other paths to enlightenment are through hard, austere practice.There are four different levels of tantra: Action, Performance, Yoga and Highest Yoga Tantra. First we have to receive initiation. In order to do so, we have to make material offerings, such as gold or even members of our family—a spouse or a sibling— and with great devotion request our guru to give us the initiation. If he is pleased, out of his compassion he will then give us the initiation. Having taken it, we also receive the great fortune of being able to attain enlightenment and all the high realizations that come with it.
In Highest Yoga Tantra there are four different initiations: the vase, secret, transcendent wisdom and word initiations, the latter being where the guru imparts clarification, or proof, through verbal explanation. However, the secret initiation should not be given to those living in ordination. If monks, for example, take the secret initiation, they have to leave the monastic order, because those who have taken the secret initiation are required to practice with a female consort. If they do these practices without first returning their ordination, they lose it, the consequence of which is rebirth in hell.
To receive tantric commentaries, you first have to receive initiation. Without initiation, you cannot receive tantric teachings. You also cannot perform fire pujas or give tantric teachings.In the last verse, Atisha closes this text by describing himself as an elder a full monk who, in the first twelve years after taking ordination, hasn’t created any moral falls; a senior full monk. He states that he has given this brief explanation on the steps of path at the request of his noble follower, Jangchub O.