Overview of the Gradual Path to Enlightenment

Three Levels

In Lamp of the Path, Atisha described three levels of spiritual practitioners, each with its own aspiration, method to cultivate that aspiration, and practices to do to actualize that aspiration, once cultivated. (See diagram/table.)

  • This was further elaborated upon by Je Tsongkhapa and other Tibetan sages.
  • Having a good overview of the structure of the stages of the path (AKA the gradual path) enables us to place any teaching we may hear into the larger framework of the path to enlightenment.

The Purpose and Subtopics of Each Topic

Developing Confidence in the Teachings and Lineage of Teachers

  • Preeminent qualities of the compilers, who actualized the path they taught
  • Preeminent qualities of the teachings, which are organized into a gradual process that we can practice to become enlightened

How to Engage with the Teachings

  • How to select a qualified spiritual mentor
  • Qualities the student should try to develop
  • How to listen to and teach the Dharma so that great benefit will ensue

How to Meditate on the Stages of the Path, with the Example of the Meditation on the Spiritual Mentor

  • Preparatory practices, i.e., how to prepare our minds for contemplating the lamrim topics
  • Relying on a spiritual teacher in order to benefit from his/her guidance

Appreciating Your Special Opportunity

  • The qualities of a precious human life (so we don’t take it for granted)
  • The purpose of a precious human life (making our lives meaningful)
  • The rarity and difficulty of obtaining a precious human life (so we are inspired to use it wisely)

The Path in Common with Initial Level Practitioners

Here we do the same practices as initial level practitioners, but our long-term motivation is the altruistic intention. Attaining a good rebirth is a necessary step in that direction, so that we have the circumstances necessary to continue cultivating bodhicitta and practicing the bodhisattva path.

  • Advantages of remembering death and disadvantages of not doing so (to help us set our priorities wisely)
  • Eight worldly concerns (so we don’t waste our lives and create problems through attachment and aversion to transient pleasures and displeasures)
  • Actual meditation on death (to prepare well for death)
  • The possibility of unfortunate rebirth (so we let go of bad habits and cultivate our potential)
  • Taking refuge in the Three Jewels (who offer us positive direction and guidance in our life)
  • Observing cause and effect (karma and its effects) to help us avoid creating the causes of suffering and create the causes of happiness

The Path in Common with Intermediate Level Practitioners

Here we do the same practices they do, but our long-term motivation is the altruistic intention, not only our personal liberation from cyclic existence. Without seeing the disadvantages of and wishing to be free of our own cyclic existence, it is not possible to have this compassionate wish for others.

  • Four Noble Truths, wherein we learn about suffering (unsatisfactoriness), its causes, its cessation, and the path to nirvana
  • Disadvantages of cyclic existence (to gain the momentum to change)
  • The causes of cyclic existence (mental afflictions)
  • The path to liberation (practicing the higher trainings)

The Path of Advanced Level Practitioners

Here we reflect on the unsatisfactory conditions of others’ lives and develop great love, great compassion, and great resolve to work for their benefit. This spurs us to generate bodhicitta, the altruistic intention to become a Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings. When our bodhicitta is spontaneous, we enter the bodhisattva path.

  • Advantages of the altruistic intention (to generate enthusiasm for meditations focusing on generating love, compassion and bodhicitta)
  • Equanimity (to generate an open-hearted attitude that cares equally about each sentient being)
  • The seven-point instruction of cause and effect for generating the altruistic intention
    1. recognize all sentient beings have been our parents
    2. remember their kindness
    3. repay their kindness
    4. love, i.e., train our hearts and minds to see all beings as lovable
    5. compassion, i.e., wish all beings free from suffering and its causes
    6. great resolve, i.e., we take responsibility and act to bring about our loving and compassionate aspirations for others
    7. altruistic intention
  • Equalizing and exchanging self and other to generate the altruistic intention
    1. equalizing self and others, i.e., we all want to be happy and free from suffering
    2. disadvantages of self-centeredness, i.e., we see that it underlies our conflict and pain
    3. advantages of cherishing others, i.e., this is the source of our own and others’ happiness
    4. exchanging self and others, i.e., we practice shifting the primary object of our care from ourselves to others
    5. taking and giving, i.e., we train in taking in others’ dukkha to destroy our own ignorance and self-centeredness, and also practice transforming our body, possessions, and positive potential so that they become whatever others need and give them to others with delight
    6. altruistic intention
  • Taking the bodhisattva vows, i.e., we determine to engage in the practices of a bodhisattva: the six far-reaching practices and the four ways of gathering students.
  • The six far-reaching practices:
    1. generosity (we develop joy in giving to others for their benefit)
    2. ethical conduct (we determine not to harm others physically, verbally, or mentally)
    3. patience (to benefit others, we learn to remain calm and undisturbed when faced with harm or suffering)
    4. joyous effort (we take delight in acting constructively)
    5. meditative stabilization (we learn to direct the mind to whatever positive object we wish, for as long as we wish, in order to realize the ultimate nature of reality and root out the afflictions)
    6. wisdom (we come to understand both the conventional functioning of things as well as their deeper mode of existence--the emptiness of inherent existence; thus, we gradually eradicate all obscurations from our mindstream and gain great abilities to benefit all sentient beings)
  • The four ways of gathering disciples:
    1. generosity
    2. pleasant speech (we teach sentient beings the Dharma according to their disposition and interest)
    3. encouraging others to practice
    4. acting according to what we instruct others to do
  • The tantric path (we receive initiation into a tantric practice and practice the special techniques to purify our mind and create positive potential, develop concentration and wisdom, and create the causes for the body and mind of a Buddha)

The Diagram

NOTE: The three principal aspects of the path are in italicized boldface in the table below to show their relationship to the three levels of spiritual practitioners.

Three Levels of Spiritual Practitioners on the Path
Level Aspiration to Develop Meditations to Develop It What to Practice Once Aspiration Is Developed
Initial To die peacefully; to have a good rebirth Precious human life; impermanence and death; unfortunate rebirths Refuge; karma and its effects
Middle Determination to be free from cyclic existence and attain liberation Four Noble Truths; disadvantages of cyclic existence; nature of afflictions and factors that stimulate their arising Three higher trainings:
  • Ethical conduct
  • Concentration
  • Wisdom (correct view)
Advanced Altruistic intention (bodhicitta) Equanimity; seven-point instruction of cause and result; equalizing and exchanging self and others Six far-reaching practices (one of which is wisdom); four ways of gathering disciples; path of tantra