Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) was one of the greatest commentator in the history of Buddhism and has the dexterity to compress profound and vast ideas in a single poem. The Three Principal Aspects of the Path is one such example. This text containing fourteen verses was taught to Tsakho Onpo Ngawang Dakpa in a place called Gyamo Rong in eastern Tibet.
The Three Principal Aspects of the Path are the basis of all the sutric and tantric practices that you undertake. ‘When one’s practice is influenced by renunciation, it becomes a cause for achieving liberation (Nirvana), when it is influenced by Bodhichitta it becomes a cause for achieving omniscience (Buddhahood), and when it is influenced by correct view it becomes an antidote to the cycle of existence (Samsara).
The Three Principal Aspects of the Path are the essence of all the scriptures of the Buddha. The meaning of the Buddha’s teachings and commentaries on them are included in the stages of the path of the three individuals and these in turn are included in the Three Principal Aspects of the Path.
Je Tsongkhapa’s masterpiece appears here with a commentary by the greatest commentator and foremost teacher on Buddhism of our time His Holiness the VIX Dalai Lama.
I am happy that the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) is publishing His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s commentary on The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, which I had the fortune to simultaneously translate during the teaching itself, and later prepare this written translation with the help of my long-term friend Jeremy Russell. This is a text taught by Tsongkhapa to Tsakho Onpo Ngawang Dakpa in a place called Gyamo Rong in eastern Tibet.
The Three Principal Aspects of the Path are the axis or lifeline of all the sutric and tantric practices what you undertake. In other words, it is important that your practice be influenced by these three. For when your practice is influenced by renunciation, it becomes a cause for achieving liberation (Nirvana), when it is influenced by Bodhichitta it becomes a cause for achieving omniscience (Buddhahood), and when it is influenced by correct view it becomes an antidote to the cycle of existence (Samsara). In the absence of these main aspects of the path, even if one is well versed in the five subjects of learning, even if one is able to remain in a meditative state for many eons, even if one possesses the five clairvoyances, and even if one has achieved the eight great accomplishments, one will not be able to go beyond this cycle of existence.
The Three Principal Aspects of the Path are the essence of all the scriptures of the Buddha. The meaning of the Buddha’s teachings and commentaries on them are included in the stages of the path of the three individuals and these in turn are included in the Three Principal Aspects of the Path. This is so because the purpose of all the scriptures containing the Buddha’s teachings and their commentaries is really to help followers achieve Buddhahood. To attain that state of omniscience, one should practise the two-fold practice of skillful means and wisdom, within which the main practice is Bodhichitta and correct view (wisdom understanding emptiness). In order to cultivate these two, one should have first of all cultivated a deep sense of disgust towards the superficial marvels of the cycle of existence, and should have developed genuine renunciation—the wish to come out of samsara. In the absence of this, it is impossible to develop the great compassion whit inspires to liberate other sentient beings from the cycle of existence. Hence renunciation is a must.
Bodhichitta is the main practice of accumulation of merit for &achieving the body of the Buddha (Rupa Kaya), and correct view is the main practice for achieving the truth body (Dharmakaya). Moreover in the beginning, in order to convince one’s mind to embrace dharma, one needs renunciation. To ensure that the dharma practice becomes a Mahayana path of practice, one needs Bodhichitta, and to eliminate completely the two obscurations, correct view is a must. Thus these three are known as the Three Principal Aspects of the Path. This way of practising all the essential points of the path by including them in these three principal aspects is a very special instruction that Manjushri gave directly to Tsongkhapa.
Today I am going to explain the Three Principal Aspects of the Path. As usual, before beginning a teaching, we will do the three practices for cleaning our mental continuums and then we will recite the Heart Sutra. Now make the mandala offering.
‘Whatever teachings are being given both the listener and the teacher should have a pure motivation. Especially when you listen to a Mahayana teaching, you should firstly take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha to protect yourself from following the wrong path, and secondly you should generate an altruistic mind of enlightenment to differentiate yourself from followers of lower paths. Therefore we should visualise two points: firstly, taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for the benefit of all sentient beings, then generating the altruistic aspiration to enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. So with this motivation, we should recite the verse for taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha three times, clearly visualising that we are doing so for the benefit of all sentient beings.
After the incomparable Buddha had attained enlightenment at the Bodh Gaya, he taught the Four Noble Truths: true sufferings, the true causes of suffering, true cessations and true paths. This became the basis or foundation for all the later teachings he gave. Although the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths during his first turning of the wheel of the doctrine, the meaning of true cessation was most explicitly taught during the second turning of the wheel of doctrine. At that time, he taught the meaning of emptiness directly, and implicitly taught the stages of the path. In other won is, while teaching emptiness directly, he taught the meaning of the two truths, conventional and ultimate truth, and the complete meaning of nirvana and cessation.
During the third turning of the wheel of doctrine, the Buddha taught the meaning of Buddha nature in the Tathagata Essence Sutra, that forms the basis for Maitreya’s Sublime Science (Unaratantra). He explained that sentient beings have a Buddha nature or an ability to become enlightened mainly in terms of the nature of the mind, which is empty of inherent existence and thus suitable to be transformed into enlightenment. It is very clearly explained in the Sublime Science that the mind is by nature very pure and free of defilement which makes it suitable for attaining enlightenment. This is because anything which lacks inherent existence is changeable, and subject to causes and conditions. As Nagarjuna says in his text called Fundamental Wisdom,
For whichever (system) emptiness is possible
For that all is possible
For whichever (system) emptiness is not possible
For that nothing is possible
The meaning of emptiness is being empty of inherent existence and that means being dependent on something else, being dependent on causes and conditions. When we say something is dependent on other phenomena, it means that when those phenomena change, that particular thing will also change. If it were not dependent on something else and had inherent existence, then it would not be subject to change due to other conditions.
So, during the second turning of the wheel of doctrine, teaching that phenomena lack inherent existence, the Buddha taught clearly that phenomena can be made to change, because they are dependent on causes and conditions. Now although phenomena lack inherent existence when they appear to us, we think that they exist inherently. Not only do phenomena appear as if they are inherently existent, but we also become attached to them and determine that they exist inherently. In this way, we generate craving, desire, anger and so forth, When we encounter some pleasant or interesting object, we generate a lot of attachment and if we see something distasteful or unappealing, we get angry. Therefore problems like anger and attachment arise because of conceiving phenomena as inherently existent.
The conception of phenomena as inherently existent is a wrong consciousness mistaken towards its referent object, which provides
the foundation for all delusions. However, if we generate an understanding that phenomena are not inherently existent, it will act as a counter force to that wrong consciousness. This shows that the defilements of the mind can be removed. If the delusions which defile the mind are removable then the seeds or potencies left behind by these delusions can also be eliminated. The total purity of the nature of the mind, which is its lack of inherent existence, is taught very explicitly in the second turning of the wheel of the doctrine. During the third turning of the wheel, it is explained again not only from the ultimate, but also from the conventional point of view, that the ultimate nature of the mind is pure, and in its pure state it is only neutral and clear light.
For example, whoever we are, delusions do not manifest within us all the time. ‘What is more, even towards the same object we sometimes generate anger, sometimes generate love, which ought not be possible if things have inherent existence. This clearly shows that the real nature of the principal mind, the mind itself, is pure, hut due to mental factors or the minds that accompany the principal mind, it sometimes appears to have a virtuous quality like love, and at others appears to have virtuous quality like love, and at others it appears in a deluded form like anger. That the nature of the principal mind is therefore neutral, but being dependent on its accompanying mind it may change from a virtuous to a non-virtuous mind.
So, the mind by nature is clear light and the defilements or delusions are temporary and adventitious. This indicates that if we practice and cultivate virtuous qualities, the mind can be transformed positively. On the other hand, if it encounters delusions then it will take on the form of delusions. Therefore all such qualities as the ten powers of the Buddha can also be attained because of this quality of the mind.
For example, all the different kinds of consciousness have the same quality of understanding and knowing their object clearly, but when a particular consciousness encounters some obstacle it is not able to understand its object. Although my eye consciousness has the potential to see an object, if I cover it up it will be obstructed from seeing the object. Similarly, the consciousness may not be able to see the object because it is too far away. So the mind already has the potential to understand all phenomena, a quality that need not be strengthened, but it may be obstructed by other factors.
With the attainment of the higher qualities of a Buddha, like the ten powers, we attain a full state of consciousness able to see the object very clearly and completely. This too can be attained merely by recognising the real nature of the mind and removing the delusions and obstructions from it.
During the third turning of the wheel of the doctrine, of the four noble truths initially taught during the first turning of the wheel, the meaning of the true path is explained very clearly by defining the meaning of tathagatagarbha, or Buddha nature. This makes possible the attainment of omniscience, the ultimate state of consciousness able to see phenomena and their ultimate mode of being.
Therefore, a complete explanation of the meaning of the true cessation is given during the second turning of the wheel of the doctrine and very detailed explanation of the true path is given during the third turning of the wheel. It explains the mind’s potential to know phenomena’s ultimate mode of existence and how omniscience can be achieved if you promote and develop that.
Now, when it comes to explaining the ultimate nature of the mind and its suitability for attaining enlightenment, we have the accounts of both sutra and tantra. These are differentiated by the details of their explanation of the nature of the mind. The tantric teachings give a very clear explanation of the subtlest state of enlightenment within the highest class of tantra, that is Highest Yoga Tantra. The first three classes of the tantra form a foundation for that.
In essence, this is a brief explanation of the Buddha’s teaching, from the Four Noble Truths up to the highest class of tantric teaching. However, even if we have a clear understanding of the ultimate nature of the mind and the possibility of attaining enlightenment with it, if we do not practise and make effort to achieve that goal, then enlightenment will not be attainable. So while on the one hand it is important to know the ultimate nature of the mind, on the other, we should generate an intention to practise and realise this potential.
In teaching the first two Noble Truths the Buddha described the faults, the defects that must be given up and eliminated, that is true suffering and the true origin of suffering. In teaching the second pair
of the Four Noble Truths, that is the true path and true cessation, the Buddha explained that there is a method, a path to get rid of these sufferings and delusions through which the complete cessation of those delusions can be attained. If there were no cure or method to eliminate suffering and attain a state of complete cessation and peace, it would not be necessary to discuss, think about or meditate on suffering, because it would merely engender pessimism and create more suffering for yourself. It would be better to remain bewildered and carefree. However, in fact we do have a chance, there is path and method to get rid of suffering, so it is worthwhile to talk and think about suffering. This is the importance and encompassing quality of the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths, for they provide the basis and foundation of all practices.
When we think about suffering and the true origin of suffering, and we come to an understanding of these two truths, we will generate a wish to rid ourselves of the suffering and its causes. In other words, because we dislike true suffering and the true origin of suffering we will generate a wish to reject them. This is called the determination to be free.
When you carefully consider sufferings it is not only you who are under its power, for other sentient beings also suffer in the same way. Then you should think that as other sentient beings are suffering just like me, how marvellous it would be if they could also eliminate suffering and its causes. Such a wish for other sentient beings to eliminate the suffering and its causes is called compassion. When, induced by compassion, you decide that you will help them yourself to eliminate suffering and its causes, that is the special resolve or the mind that wishes actively to benefit other sentient beings.
Then, if you look carefully at how sentient beings can be benefitted not just temporarily but ultimately, you will come to the conclusion that you will only be able to benefit them completely if you help them attain enlightenment and to do that, you must attain enlightenment yourself. This compassionate mind wishing to attain Buddhahood in order to help all sentient beings attain enlightenment is called the mind of enlightenment.
It is feasible to get rid of suffering and attain the ultimate status of enlightenment because phenomena do not have independent or inherent existence. Therefore it is important to understand the nature of phenomena, their lack of inherent existence. This understanding of phenomena’s lack of inherent existence is called right view.
It is these three qualities: the determination to be free, mind of enlightenment, and right or correct view which are treated here as the three principal paths. They are so-called because they provide the real motivation for attaining liberation from cyclic existence and form the framework for attaining enlightenment.
The principal means of attaining liberation from cyclic existence is the determination to be free and the principal means of attaining enlightenment is the mind of enlightenment. Both of these are augmented by the right view or wisdom realising emptiness. Now J will begin to explain the text.
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