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The Lamrim – the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment

The encounters he made upon leaving his palace deeply shocked the young prince Siddhārtha, the future Buddha Shakyamuni. He suddenly realised that we are born alone, fall ill, age and die alone to be reborn over and over, and this since time immemorial. In the process we are constantly subjected to the varying degrees of pain and misery of samsāra (cyclic existence) that our karma –physical, oral and mental actions– and kleśā (disturbing mental states) inflict upon us.

Some of the different paths or methods taught by the Buddha to change this situation are found in the Mahayana or "great vehicle", which focuses on developing altruism. It is this form of Buddhism that was preserved in Tibet until 1959. Its teaching often takes the form of a progressive path leading to Buddhahood or complete enlightenment or lamrim in Tibetan. This presentation of the Buddha's teaching was mainly developed by the great Tibetan Master, Je Tsongkhapa, who founded the Gelug Order. It is based on Buddha Shakyamuni's numerous sutras and on the treatises and commentaries of Indian scholars, notably The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Lamdrön) by the great Atisha Dipankara Shri Jnana (982–1054) of whom the Tibetan masters of the Kadam Order are the spiritual heirs.

Upon arriving in Tibet in the mid-11th century, Atisha wrote this work for his Tibetan disciples. It includes all of the Buddha's essential teachings found in both his sutras and his tantras, and elucidates the hidden meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras (Prajñāpāramitā Sutra), i.e. the exact number and nature of the spiritual qualities to cultivate in meditation and the order in which to do so. The Lamdrön also defines three kinds of practitioners according to the scope of their intentions in practising.

Those of lesser motivation aim mainly to avoid the hardest situations in samsāra and strive only for a good rebirth in a higher realm. For this they strictly abide by the law of karma and its effects by refraining from creating the inner causes of suffering and cultivating the causes of happiness.

Those of intermediate motivation go further. They are not content with just a good rebirth, which may be necessary on the short-term but provides only unreliable and short-lived happiness. Instead they strive to free themselves definitively from cyclic existence by eliminating all negative or disruptive states of mind, the kleśā. They achieve this by following the three higher trainings: in ethical discipline, which stills coarse disturbing thoughts; in concentration, which acts upon the more subtle ones; and in the wisdom that understands non-self, the ultimate remedy to the delusions that maintain one in samsāra.

Those of great motivation, based on the above awareness no longer seek exclusively their own well-being. They broaden their vision and include in their quest for happiness the infinite number of sentient beings who like themselves are plunged in the boundless depths of samsāra's sufferings.

This attitude when fully developed constitutes the core of the Mahayana. These practitioners are motivated by a strong sense of compassion which renders sentient beings' current situation intolerable to them and makes them all the more determined to do whatever is needed to free them from it. They understand the need to gradually overcome all their faults and to develop all good qualities to perfection. In other terms they see that only acquiring the extraordinary attainments of a Buddha will enable them to work fully for the liberation of all beings from suffering by teaching and setting an example.

The intention to achieve enlightenment so as to be able to benefit all sentient beings is bodhichitta, the spirit of enlightenment. First generated deliberately, through training it eventually becomes spontaneous, making its possessor a bodhisattva – a "Conqueror's Son".

The lamrim describes the precise order in which spiritual qualities are to be developed so that the spirit of enlightenment –the door to the Mahayana– arises in one. It also explains the good qualities that the bodhisattva must then cultivate to progress to Buddhahood.

In addition to renouncing samsāra and cultivating the spirit of enlightenment, practitioners strive to understand emptiness, the ultimate mode of existence of all phenomena. With these core attainments –renunciation, bodhichitta and the understanding of emptiness known as the "three principle qualities of the path"– one may fruitfully engage in the practice of tantra, the esoteric methods to achieve Buddhahood rapidly.

After Je Tsongkhapa, other great masters of the Gelug Order wrote works on the lamrim based on their personal meditational experiences. The eight major lamrim treatises are:

His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that if one were to add a ninth lamrim it should be Liberation in your Hands, a detailed and exhaustive set of discourses on the stages of the path given by Pabongkha Rinpoche in 1921, transcribed and edited by his disciple Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and then published and taught by the latter in Lhasa in 1958.

Venerable Dagpo Rinpoche's teachings are based on these great works and on the Buddha's sutras and tantras along with their Indian commentaries.