Lam Rim: The Five Paths

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

Completing review of Five Paths

In Buddhism, the practitioner makes progress by bringing together three spiritual elements: renunciation, bodhicitta, and a correct view of emptiness.

With a correct view of emptiness, we understand ultimate reality precisely or correctly. Our perception doesn't confuse the truth of reality with appearances. The way things and objects appear to our mind is not the way they really are. Our naïve or ordinary perception finds the truth of reality in appearance. Since appearances don't give us correct information on reality, it's confusing. This is the fundamental cause of our delusions, such as attachment, which is an emotional response to the objects of our experience. Our attraction or repulsion doesn't match what the object really is.

The correct view of emptiness means the mind or conscious that understands an object as it really is, does not confuse the truth of reality with appearances. When a mirage appears, air seems to be water. An animal sees the mirage, sees truth in appearances, rushes there, finds no water, and is upset. Our naïve perception sees the mirage as actual water, sees truth in appearances. We try to find the truth of objects in appearances; we think truth exists in the way something appears. With a correct view of emptiness, we have a perception that perfectly understands the reality of phenomena without being confused by looking for truth in appearances.

Renunciation, bodhicitta, a correct view of emptiness: Without bringing these three together, it is difficult to make any progress in spiritual practice. As we make progress, we move through the five paths and 10 bhumis. Our practice moves from path to path through a non-meditative experience of life to a meditative experience of life. A non-meditative experience is daily life, any experience that occurs when you are not engaged in meditation. This is the time when we experience conventional reality, when our five senses are actively engaged.

When we move to meditative experience, our five senses stop engaging us and the appearances of conventional reality cease to function. What is left behind is a mere state of vacuity or emptiness. Once conventional reality stops, temporarily, a pure state of vacuity is left. The meditator abides there without negating or affirming. That we call the meditative experience.

The non-meditative experience is all conceptual, intellectual. When you go deeper, the meditative experience is experiential, and your understanding of emptiness moves from an intellectual understanding to an experiential understanding.

The first three paths

The first path is the Path of Accumulation; the second is the Path of Preparation. The third is the Path of Seeing, and it contains the first bhumi.

The bhumis (stages)

The bhumis start with the Path of Seeing. "Bhumis" refers to levels or stages of spiritual realization. At each stage or level, understanding becomes deeper. "Bhumi" is a Sanskirt word meaning levels or stages. Each bhumi is a different level of the wisdom that realizes emptiness. So all are different levels of the realization of emptiness.

The fourth path

The other nine bhumis belong to the fourth path, the Path of Meditation. In each stage, intellectual/conceptual understanding diminishes. Experiential understanding deepens. When moving from path to path, the practitioner moves from the non-meditative experience to the meditative experience. The practitioner moves from bhumi to bhumi only through the meditative experience.

In the first bhumi within the Path of Seeing, if an individual is not seeking full enlightenment, then from the Path of Seeing, the individual can reach nirvana or liberation. In nirvana or liberation, the 112 delusions are abandoned, the individual is not subject to karma or delusions, and inner peace isn't affected by external forces or circumstances. That's considered enough. The individual can abide in that state forever.

But subtle remnants of self remain; so focus on enlightenment; don't stay! If the individual is searching for full enlightenment, the individual keeps progressing from the Path of Meditation to the Path of No More Learning. The Path of Meditation has nine bhumis. With each bhumi, the subtle residue of duality, the habitual propensity, becomes weaker and weaker. The subjective experience of the difference between true truth and relative truth (or ultimate truth and conventional truth) becomes stronger. As the subjective experience of ultimate truth becomes stronger, it more effectively diminishes the subtle residue of duality.

When the meditator moves from the second path to the third – and before moving from the third path to the fourth - there is a little break when the meditative state does not exist, but the mind and awareness don't separate from emptiness. So, there is no duality.

The fifth path

When the meditator reaches the tenth bhumi, the subtle residue of duality disappears, and the meditator is on the fifth path, the Path of No More Learning. At this point, the meditator has reached the perfect unification of the meditative experience and non-meditative experience. The non-meditative experience of life and the meditative experience have become one. Since they have become one, the appearance of conventional reality and ultimate reality have also become one. There are no contradictions in the mind or perceptions. Reality has become one taste. If you have a good understanding of emptiness, you can understand how conventional and ultimate reality could become one.

Right now, a cup appears to our minds as possessing inherent or objective reality, which convinces us a glass or a cup can be found within its material components. We think a cup starts from a cup. A cup never appears to start from a non-cup. In reality, a cup is composed of non-cup elements, and none of these elements is the cup or contains "cupness." If a cup appears with an absence of cupness, then we can't posit the cup. We think a cup is all cup, or it is not a cup.

When we achieve "one taste," the cup still appears to us to be a cup, but we understand it doesn't start from "cupness." This won't change once we reach the Path of No More Learning. The meditative and post-meditative state become one; the non-meditative and meditative experience become one. The appearance of conventional and ultimate reality becomes one, one taste. Thus, the individual can interact with the physical or material world while remaining in a meditative state. That state of pure awareness is called dharmakaya or truth body.

The fifth path is called the Path of No More Learning because there is nothing left that needs to be realized or purified, abandoned or corrected. That state is called enlightenment. Even the subtle remnants of the self are destroyed. Therefore, there is a need to interact with the physical world, rather than abide in the bliss of nirvana.

So now it is clear the ultimate goal of spiritual practice is to reach the everlasting happiness of nirvana, and second, the blissful awareness of omniscient mind. These are the ultimate goals of Buddhist spiritual practice.

Question: Nirvana occurs before dharmakaya?

Answer: Yes. Dharmakaya is the final stage when the subtle remnants of self are gone.

Question: So you want to go by nirvana because you want bodhicitta? Since in nirvana you have remnants of self, you don't reach out to others, right?

Answer: Yes, since subtle remnants of self are there, they don't see a reason to interact with the physical world. As a result, they choose to rest in the bliss of nirvana.

Question: Would you then be turned away from the path of achieving dharmakaya?

Answer: Yes.

Question: So we're trying to figure out, do you want to skip nirvana?

Answer: If you are searching for enlightenment, you reach a certain point where you have the ability to rest or abide in the bliss of nirvana, but you chose not to do so. You pass through nirvana, through, yes. You want to continue.

Question: So it's a way station, not a destination?

Answer: Yes. The one purely searching for enlightenment has to pass through nirvana. You will reach nirvana to get to the Path of No More Learning.

Question: So the act of turning away from nirvana is selfless.

Answer: Smell it. Love it. Then go. Let it go. Don't look back. When we see a beautiful thing, we walk three or four steps and need to look back. Don't do that; that's attachment.

Question: In the fifth path, are you constantly in a meditative state?

Answer: Yes, constant meditative state.

Question: What does that mean? When I think of a meditative state, I think of someone sitting.

Answer: Yes, you are in a meditative state, but you can still go the supermarket. I'm serious. You'll never lose that meditative experience, even when you're fully interacting with the ordinary world. This is only in the fifth path. Before that, definitely you lose the meditative experience when interacting with the world. When you complete the Path of No More Learning, when you are constantly in the meditative state, is there a need to sit down and meditate? No, no. There is no time separating the meditative and non-meditative experience. It becomes one.

Question: But didn't the Buddha continue to practice? I'm talking about Shakyamuni.

Answer: No, no, it's not needed.

Question: So I'm getting that if you're not interested in enlightenment, that's a really bad thing. Suppose you don't really care about enlightenment? What's the point of worrying about enlightenment? Isn't getting through the day enough?

Answer: Yes, you're right. If you are happy 24 hours a day, emotionally happy, then there's no need to worry about the attainment of nirvana or enlightenment. If one is fully satisfied with life, there is no need. In the beginning of the Lam Rim, we say we human beings have many psychological and emotional problems and pains that arise from our delusions. As long as we have delusions, we won't have room for everlasting peace. But if we find life is good, we are happy, and don't see a need for higher happiness, then you are right, there is no need for enlightenment. I'm serious now.

Most of us need more than that. Sometimes we're happy in relationships with others. We get new material possessions, and we are happy or excited. Then, after some time, the happiness or excitement, even in relationships, goes away. If we carefully examine this, we see the happiness itself becomes the cause of the new problems. The way we live in our day-to-day life is going from an old problem to a new problem. When we're moving from the old problem to the new problem, we get a break.

After some time it makes sense that we need more than that. That inspires you to look for the happiness of enlightenment. It takes time to understand the possibility of the state of enlightenment or Buddhahood. It's not easy to understand. And the paths or bhumis, the ways to get there are complicated. So if you are satisfied with your life, there is no need to look for enlightenment.

Question: There are two goals, nirvana and enlightenment? Enlightenment is the second goal?

Answer: Yes, it is the highest goal. Nirvana is a state of everlasting bliss, a state of total release from our minds. Enlightenment is blissful awareness of the omniscient mind.

Question: At the beginning of the fourth path, you experience the unity of conventional and true reality. Are you saying the duality of conventional and true reality is an illusion?

Answer: Actually, there is no duality. Our ordinary minds create the duality. In Buddhism, when we talk about duality, there are four types of duality. The first duality: Seeing the object and the perceiver as separate. The second duality: We see whatever we see through our generic images. Whenever we see a cup, we see it as a cup only if it matches the generic image of cup carried in our minds. The ordinary mind is not able to see the cup directly, but only through the generic image. Because of this, when you see a cup you saw a few days ago, you don't see the distinctness. You say, "Oh, that's the cup I saw a few days ago." You don't separate the cup you saw two days ago and the cup you see today. You see them as one. This prevents us from seeing the unique freshness of an object.

Apply this to a person. You have a disagreement with someone. You see them a few weeks or months later, and you see that person with your past memories. Up pops the memory, and the anger is back. By doing this, you fail to see the unique freshness of the person, so it is difficult to forgive. This is the second duality, seeing the object as one with the generic image, with past experiences. This can be eliminated by mastering shamata meditation.

The third duality: When we see an object such as a cup or glass, we always see the cupness in the cup or the glassness in the glass. We assume the cupness is found in the cup's material components. This is the main cause of our mismatched emotional responses to the physical, material world. Our understanding of emptiness doesn't change the way the object appears to our mind; it only changes our response to it. We no longer respond as if something is beautiful or ugly, attractive or unattractive, desirable or undesirable. We no longer experience attractiveness as part of the object, so then an object won't cause the emotional response of attraction in us.

If attractiveness were part of an object, it would appear to every living being as attractive. That's not the case, which proves attractiveness is not part of the object. Attractiveness only exists in the way something appears to the mind; that's determined by our karmic imprint, by our perception, which is under an influence determined by karmic force. So the third duality is seeing an inherent quality in the object.

The fourth duality: The last duality is seeing the ultimate truth and relative truth as separate entities, as two different tastes. The third and fourth dualities can't be destroyed by accomplishing shamata meditation alone, only by the union of shamata and vipassana meditation. The perfect unification of shamata and vipassana meditation only starts in the last moment of the second path, the Path of Preparation, which has four stages. The perfect unification of shamata and vipassana meditation occurs in the last moment of the fourth stage. At the same moment, one experiences directly emptiness, which becomes the antidote for the 112 delusions.

Question: Can you name some of the delusions?

Answer: Really, you want? First, there are three datus or dimensions of the world: raga datu, rupa datu and arupa datu. Raga datu is the gross material world. Rupa datu is the subtle material world. Arupa datu is the immaterial world. The delusions are distinct to the realm you are in.

The gross material world, our human world, has 40 delusions. We are more attached to sensual pleasures; we are crazy after our sensual pleasures. Because of this, we forget or fail to take care of our inner, emotional well-being.

In rupa datu, the subtle material world, there are 36 delusions. The beings there are not as crazy about sensual pleasure; they are more balanced between the sensual pleasures and the inner, emotional world.

In the immaterial world, they are completely absorbed with equanimity, neither a feeling of joy or sorrow. That realm has 36 delusions. That makes 112.

The 40 delusions in our realm are divided into ten. You know about delusions such as anger or attachment. You are asking what else. Most of us, we have a habit of looking out for No. 1. This is selfish grasping. Most of us don't see that as a delusion, right? But that's a big delusion, looking out for No. 1.

All these delusions are clearly explained in the "Abidharmakosha" written by Vasubandhu, an Indian master in the third century. The text has ten chapters concerned with the Buddhist understanding of the cosmic structure; it talks about mind and matter and energy. Every existing phenomenon is either mind or matter or energy.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, November 9, 2001.