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Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightment

by Geshe Sonam Rinehen translated and edited by Ruth Sonam

The following article is from the Summer, 1997 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Atisha, the eleventh-century Indian Buddhist scholar and saint, came to Tibet at the invitation of the king of Western Tibet, Lha Lama Yeshe Wí_, and his nephew Jangchub Wo. His coming initiated the period of the second transmission of Buddhism to Tibet, the revival which followed the persecution of Buddhism by the Tibetan king Langdarma in the ninth century, formative for the Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

Atisha's most celebrated text, entitled Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, was written for the Tibetan people at the request of Jangchub Wo. It sets forth the entire Buddhist path within the framework of three levels of motivation on the part of the practitioner, represented by the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana paths. Atisha's text thus became the source of the lamrim tradition, or graduated stages of the path to enlightenment, an approach to spiritual practice incorporated within all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Geshe Sonam Rinchen's lucid and engaging commentary draws out Atisha's meaning for today's practitioners with warmth and wit, bringing the light of this age-old wisdom into the modern world. Here is an excerpt:

All Buddhas say the cause for the completion

Of the collections, whose nature is

Merit and exalted wisdom,

Is the development of higher perception. [34]

In the state of enlightenment our wisdom truth body is the fulfillment of our own highest aims, while our form bodies are for the well-being of others. In order to attain enlightenment we must complete the stores of merit and insight, and the best way to do this is by working for others. This is done most effectively with the help of extra-sensory perception, which depends upon the development of a calmly abiding mind. The text now explains the reasons for developing such higher perception and how to do so.

Just as a bird with undeveloped

Wings cannot fly in the sky,

Those without the power of higher perception

Cannot work for the good of living beings. [35]

Just as hens can't fly because their wings are not sufficiently developed for flight, our work for others is hampered without the different forms of higher perception.

The merit gained in a single day

By one who possess higher perception

Cannot be gained even in a hundred lifetimes

By one without such higher perception. [36]

Enormous merit can be created in . even a single day if we have these forms of super-knowledge, merit that would otherwise take aeons to develop.

Those who want swiftly to complete

The collections for full enlightenment

Will accomplish higher perception

Through effort, not through laziness. [37]

If we are sincere in our wish to gain enlightenment swiftly for the sake of all beings, which is what we promise to do when we take the Bodhisattva vow, we must develop these different types of higher perception as the surest way of completing the great stores of merit and insight. We will only gain them if we know how and set about creating the necessary causes and conditions. If we are lazy about doing this our wish to develop them is futile.

Without the attainment of calm abiding,

Higher perception will not occur.

Therefore make repeated effort

To accomplish calm abiding. [38]

How is it done? By practicing placement meditation and developing meditative stabilization in which bliss, the outcome of total mental and physical pliancy, is experienced. This is calm abiding. Maitreya's Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras describes the nine stages of increasing mental stability and clarity which lead to this state. His Differentiation of the Middle Way and the Extremes describes the five faults and how to overcome them through the application of eight counteractions.

When trying to develop a calmly abiding mind, continuous practice with the same focal object is essential. If we are trying to make fire by rubbing two sticks together, we can't break off and begin again after some time. Success depends on continuity.

In our efforts to help others we are severely limited by lack of knowledge. There is so much we don't know about ourselves and the working of our own mind, let alone about others, their needs and their capacities. Usually when we try to help we are guessing, but sometimes our guess is right, sometimes wrong. With the different forms of higher perception or superknowledge our help will always be appropriate.

The first form of higher perception is knowledge of miraculous feats. With this we can travel to Buddha lands and make offerings to the enlightened ones. We can effortlessly find and gather together students with whom we have a strong karmic connection. Having done this, we will be able to give them good help through our knowledge of others' minds, the second kind of knowledge, which lets us discern their disposition, interests, abilities and inclinations. We can then teach them in a way which is entirely suited to their needs. The third of the higher perceptions is clairaudience, which allows us to hear what is going on in Buddha lands. This is considerably cheaper than the telephone! It enables us easily to learn the languages of our students in order to communicate with them directly.

The fourth kind of higher perception is knowledge of past places. This refers to memory of past rebirths and enables us to recall the spiritual teachers, people and practices with which we have had a previous close association. We can then seek out those teachers again and continue the practices with which we have already gained familiarity, thereby making faster progress. The fifth is clairvoyance regarding others' feelings of happiness and unhappiness. When we understand what they are experiencing our help will address their needs. The sixth is knowledge of the end of contamination. This is a personal understanding gained through meditation and higher perception of the paths which lead to liberation and of how to communicate them to others.

Since Bodhisattvas are entirely concerned with others' well-being, they only use these powers for beneficent purposes. Celestial beings, beings in the intermediate state and hungry spirits are bom with limited and partial forms of higher perception. If we happen to have a dream or intuition that comes true, we immediately suspect that we may possess clairvoyant powers. Bodhisattvas make a conscious and concerted effort to develop reliable forms of extra-sensory perception for the sake of helping others. The heightened state of concentration which forms the basis for this is the same whether attained by Buddhists or non-Buddhists. When accompanied by sincere refuge in the Three Jewels it is a Buddhist practice. When accompanied by a strong wish to gain freedom from cyclic existence it acts as a cause for liberation, while the intention to attain enlightenment for the sake of all living beings makes it a Mahayana practice.

A calmly abiding mind is necessary for attaining special insight according to the sutra tradition and for attaining the stages of generation and completion in the practice of tantra. While Atisha stresses its importance as the foundation for higher perception, Shantideva and other great masters point out that only through special insight into reality can we eliminate the ignorance which lies at the root of cyclic existence, and that such special insight cannot be developed without a calmly abiding mind.

Even if we do not succeed in developing this heightened state of meditative stabilization, we can enhance our mental stability and concentration. This will make our meditation, our daily prayers and practice of virtue much more effective. If we wish to achieve anytliing powerful we must learn to concentrate. In the chapter on maintaining mental alertness in Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds Shantideva reminds us that distraction weakens everything we do:

The one who knows reality has said

That even if recitation and austerities

Are practiced for a long period, their practice

With a distracted mind is meaningless.

The explanation of how to gain higher perception through developing a calmly abiding mind has three parts. First the prerequisites are discussed, then the method of cultivating calm abiding is described and finally the great benefits of developing it are mentioned. ä_æ


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