The Three Principles of The Path – The Promise to Compose

Week 1: The Promise to Compose

This is one of the wonderful texts composed by great master Lobzang Drakpa – Je Tsongkhapa. He was a great Buddhist practitioner and scholar. He was born in the Amdo region – Tsongkha, Tibet – in the 14th century.

The reason why I choose this text is because it includes the main three principal aspects of the path – the three main things to practice in order to achieve the state of Buddhahood. These three main points are like the nectar of all the teachings of the Buddhas, and are the essential points of all the sutras.

Another reason why I choose this text is because the author of the text – Lama Tsongkhapa – is really considered the greatest (and most highly respected) out of all the Tibetan masters. When Lama Tsongkhapa studied Buddhism, he tried to understand the teachings through meditation. Before he realised Emptiness, through the meditation, he was able to see Manjushri – the Buddha of Wisdom. Lama Tsongkhapa is a master who is able to see Manjushri, similar to how we can see our teacher. There are many teachings he received directly from Manjushri.

This is the English translation I found and the text is used by FPMT – one of the Buddhist centers related to my monastery. Therefore, this translation is reliable to use.

Many people say this text is actually taught by Manjushri and then written by Lama Tsongkhapa. One of the reasons why people say this is because the text is really wonderful. It’s just a few pages but concludes all the important points; the three principals of the path in such a way that it’s easy to understand. These are:

o Renunciation,
o Bodhicitta,
o Wisdom realizing Emptiness.

These three things are the most essential points extant in all the sutras. By practising these three points, we can achieve Enlightenment. If one’s practice does not include these three subjects, one cannot achieve Enlightenment.

Many beings are not even able to speak, understand or realize the need to remove subtle suffering. This is because they are not able to understand what the nature of suffering is in and of itself. There is subtle suffering which only humans can understand. As a result, we should contemplate the importance and fortune of being born in the world as a human being. We should feel fortunate that we can meet the teachings of Buddha. Not only that, we also have time to learn Buddhist teachings. We are among those people who not only wish to get rid of samsara just for oneself, but also that of all other sentient beings by practicing Buddha-dharma. The only way to help all the sentient beings is when you achieve the state of Buddhahood. So, because of that, with such motivation, we are among those people who wish to achieve Buddhahood.

If you look at this world, many people are just busy, and occupied by general work. Such work only fills their stomachs and provides for some clothes only for this life. Many people who just think, “I should get some food; I should get clothes,” may only prioritize these two aspects as most important. I think this is something animals and birds do (e.g. look for food, sources to drink, a safe place to live, and make nests so that they can live…).

So, from this point of view of being human, (endowed with a marvelous brain and intelligence, including the ability to differentiate the good from the bad), we should see that there is much more than we can do. We should not only think in advance one or two days, or about how to get rid of the suffering in this life, but we should think much further for next life. We should think not only for the next life for ourself, but for the future of all the sentient beings.

Some humans that meet the dharma will meet the Mahayana teachings. We talk about Enlightenment, and the compassion for all sentient beings. It’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to practise such practices so that we can achieve Enlightenment and help all sentient beings.

So, with the motivation to achieve Enlightenment, let’s start with this text which explains the three main points of the practice to achieve Enlightenment.

Let’s go to part 1:

“Expressing the Homage
I bow down to my perfect guru”.

Traditionally in India, ancient great masters, when they write books, they pray to some Buddhas, pray to the Sangha, pray with compassion and pray to some Holy teachers. The reason why they pray is to show their motivation to serve all sentient beings. The motivation (to write such books) contains the wish for many people to find Enlightenment from ignorance and to achieve Buddhahood.

So, here, instead of paying homage to a specific Buddha, Dharma or Sangha, Lama Tsongkhapa pays homage to the perfect guru. The word “guru” has two parts: Gu and Ru. Gu means ignorance, Ru is to remove. So, Guru means the one who removes ignorance, and provides knowledge and understanding. In English we can use the word “master” or “teacher” in place.

Before a master writes the actual content of the text, he bows down or pays homage to respect the perfect guru. This is because the Buddhas give teachings to the great masters, who give the teachings to the Sangha. The Sangha follows the teachings of Buddha by practicing and achieving various levels of realization. The one and only means by which you can receive all the teachings are that of from gurus – from those perfect teachers, because you cannot receive them directly from the Buddhas. You may not understand the concepts well if you read the teachings or receive the dharma directly from the Buddhas.

The reason why Lama Tsongkhapa pays homage or bows down to the perfect guru is because in doing so, it is akin to bowing down to all the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha in all directions.

If you look at the ancient texts, there is an unbroken rule all the great masters follow: Before they write down texts, they first pay homage to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha or their particular teacher. After that, they declare a promise to write a text.

Lama Tsongkhapa, not only promised to write a text, but he also expressed the topic of the book. When people read the first verse, they understand what kind of things they will find in the book. They will be able to preview the content of the book from the first page.

So, in a similar vein, in the first verse (i.e. the first four lines) you can see the topics the author plans to write in the book. At the same time, the first verse shows the promise that Lama Tsongkhapa (or the author) is making to compose a book.

The reason why these great masters show the promise at the beginning of the verse is because they can accumulate lots of merit. The merit can help remove obstacles when they write down the book.

There is a wonderful verse in the sutra which says that Holy beings don’t make promises easily.

The reason is because promises are difficult. Even though it’s hard to promise, promises are like stone. When promises are written, it is believed they aren’t something to be broken easily.

So, similarly, the author of this book makes a promise at the beginning of the text to show their dedication to the book. The promise to compose is something which has been edited to show the content of the first verse.

The Promise to Compose

[1] The essential meaning of the Victorious Ones’ teachings,
The path praised by all the holy Victors and their Children,
The gateway of the fortunate ones desiring liberation –
This I shall try to explain as much as I can.

Stanza 1, LINE 4: “This I shall try to explain as much as I can.”

This line shows the promise Lama Tsongkhapa had made. He promises to write a book as much as he can. The reason why he said “as much as I can” is because he does not want to show off he knows everything. That is, he does not want to over-display his knowledge of Emptiness, his harnessing of Bodhicitta or his ability to renounce. Lama Tsongkhapa used to receive teachings from Manjushri. He wants to explain as much as he can in order to reduce his ego as much as possible.

Now onto the content. There are three main points: Renunciation, Bodhicitta and Emptiness. The first line is about Renunciation; the second line is about developing a Bodhicitta mindset; and the third line is about Emptiness (the wisdom to realizing Emptiness).

Stanza 1, LINE 1: “The essential meaning of the Victorious Ones’ teachings”

Now the “Victorious Ones’” here means the Buddhas. The reason why Buddhas are called Victorious is because they have achieved victory over suffering (i.e. escape from negative emotions and having an imprint of negative emotions).

Additionally, “One” here is plural, because there’re many Buddhas and many teachings of the Buddhas.

In the Theravada sect, they believe in one Buddha, but in Mahayana Buddhism, there are many Buddhas, because each and every sentient being has the potential to become a Buddha. There are many beings who have already achieved Buddhahood. So, there is not only one Buddha. Lama Tsongkhapa received the teachings from the Buddha of Wisdom. That is another Buddha.

For example, Buddha Shakyamuni who appeared in this world 2,600 years ago gave many different teachings.

Among those teachings, the essential teaching (the nectar of all teachings) is that of Renunciation. The reason why Renunciation is like the nectar or the core meaning is because any of Lord Buddha’s teachings help people to get rid of suffering found in daily life. Renunciation is a desire to get rid of samsara. It is a desire to get rid of suffering and to achieve liberation.

Stanza 1, LINE 2: “The path praised by all the holy Victors and their Children”

“The path praised by all the holy Victors and their Children” is none other than one of the Bodhicitta. The Bodhicitta can be broken down into two parts: “Bodhi” referring to a Buddha, and “citta” as the ‘Mind of Enlightenment.’ The mind of Enlightenment is a path praised by all the holy Victors. Holy Victors are like the Buddhas. Their children are Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are like Buddha’s children because they are supposed to achieve Buddhahood. For example, the King’s child – the Prince – is someone who is on the path to become King. Bodhisattvas are also like a prince who is supposed to achieve the state of Buddhahood.

Now, an important point to consider is what state of mind is necessary to achieve Enlightenment. The mind desires to achieve Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Such desire comes to exist and is induced by a Great Compassion for all sentient beings–an overarching wish to achieve Enlightenment.

These two dimensions (great compassion and desire) for all sentient beings to be freed from samsara induce the mind to move towards Enlightenment for the sake of all the sentient beings. If you have great compassion and great desire to remove the suffering of all sentient beings, you realize that the power to do so may not exist now. Although I wish to remove the suffering of all the sentient beings, I cannot do that now because I am not able to remove the suffering of my own friends and family. If I cannot yet remove the suffering of those around me, how am I able to remove the suffering of all other sentient beings?

Seeing the need to achieve Enlightenment is important – that is, to eliminate the suffering of all sentient beings. Great compassion can push you. If you have great compassion, you can automatically develop Bodhicitta. Because when you wish to remove the suffering of all sentient beings, you will look for how to do so. In the search for ways to remove suffering of all sentient beings, you will attempt to find any way to achieve Buddhahood.

The reason why all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas praise the mind which desires to achieve Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings is because such desires not only purifies past karma, but also huge amounts of merits can be accumulated in a very single minute. When we first generate Bodhicitta it is called ‘Artificial Bodhicitta’ because it is generated through effort, but if we continue to improve our Bodhicitta through meditation, eventually it will arise naturally without effort. This spontaneous Bodhicitta is actual bodhicitta. While we are training in Bodhicitta it is important that we prevent this special wish from degenerating.

A genuine Bodhicitta mindset is one that should be very strong. It should be strong, similar to the desire of a person who is prisoner and wishes to get out of the prison. Suppose you are in prison. A fellow prisoner comes and beats you every day causing you to be gravely hurt. If that’s the case, the desire to get out of prison will then be continuously there, no matter what you do. The desire is salient regardless of if you try to have sound sleep after being tirelessly punished, or if you are in the position to receive delicious food that you like.

In exactly the same way, if you have genuine Bodhicitta, you have a mind that desires Buddhahood to benefit all sentient beings. That desire should be as strong as the desire a prisoner might have to get out of prison. You should desire continuously, no matter what you are doing, even if you’re at a very nice party, having a nice time, or having a meaningful time with family or friends. If you have such a mind, then you are a Boddhisattva. Even the attempt to cultivate a Bodhicitta mindset for one minute might allow the accumulation of merit greater than any other moment in your life thus far.

When working to help sentient beings all the time, there is no space in your mind to have jealousy, ego, envy (all negative emotions) towards the others. With a bodhicitta mindset, one has the best of the mind—one develops care and genuine love to help others by achieving Buddhahood. It reduces selfishness and all negative emotions – the selfish emotions. You might develop the propensity to act selfishly through emotions such as greediness, ego, pride, jealousy, and envy. Nonetheless, when you have a Bodhicitta mind, this automatically purifies many of negative karma which have been engaged with the selfish mind. This is why these paths of the Bodhicitta has been praised by all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – the Holy Victors and their children.

Stanza 1, LINE 3: “The gateway of the fortunate ones desiring liberation”

In the Mahayana tradition, liberation is the state of Enlightenment. Being free from negative emotions, and freedom from suffering is what is meant by liberation. The wisdom of realizing emptiness is like a gateway where those who are fortunate to desire liberation go on to achieving so. Because if you don’t have the wisdom to realize Emptiness, then no matter what merits you do (regardless of what kinds of practices you engage), none of such practices take you to enlightenment. The reason for so is that to reach the state of liberation and Buddhahood, you need to remove suffering.

Suffering can be removed when you are able to remove negative emotions. Negative emotions can be removed when you remove the three poisons: ignorance, attachment and anger. These three poisons can be removed when the root of these elements (i.e. ignorance) can be eliminated. The ignorance of the nature of phenomena, the ignorance of the self, the ignorance of the real mode of existence are all part of resistance to realizing emptiness. Lacking an understanding of emptiness can induce attachment, hatred, ego, jealous, pride, greedy (all the negative emotions). Because of this we are still in suffering, and in samsara.

If you want cut down the root of all suffering, then you must remove ignorance. Ignorance can be removed only when you realize Emptiness. That’s why the gateway for people desiring liberation begins with the wisdom of realizing Emptiness as the path towards achieving Enlightenment.

These three points (i.e. Renunciation, Bodhicitta and Emptiness) are things that Lama Tsongkhapa says “I shall try to explain as much as I can”. This is the beauty of this wonderful text. You can say that this text and 99% of the Nalanda master’s texts are composed in such a manner. If you just read the first few verses, you can understand the main idea intentioned by the writer. You will find out the writer’s promise as well, not to mention, the explicit statement about the content of the book.

Many people say that this text is something spoken by Manjushri and then composed by Lama Tsongkhapa. Therefore, the content of the text is considered essential or the most important points—that is, the nectar of Mahayana Buddhist sutras.

I recommend you read this alongside the text “Eight verves on the mind training.” The quality of practice is more important than the quantity of practices. Even if you understand 40-50 books, it does not make sense to read so much if you don’t understand concepts clearly. As a result, try to understand concepts from the core, from its depths clearly. Having understood the meaning of a text and having the sutra in your mind is considered having quality of practice. The output of your practice will be of quality if your input of knowledge is also of quality. To let concepts be absorbed into your mind as practice, you will be able to embody knowledge physically and verbally.

By Teak (Noted Down from The Teaching on 02 Feb 2021 by Lama Nawang Kunphel)