The Three Principal Aspects of the Path


The three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment are:

  • Renunciation (determination to be free): A strong wish for freedom is an essential prerequisite for liberation.
  • Bodhicitta (altruistic intention to become enlightened for the benefit of all sentient beings): To attain enlightenment, we need the compassionate intention to do so for the benefit of all sentient beings.
  • Wisdom (correct view of reality, of emptiness, the lack of inherent existence): We must cut through ignorance, the very root of cyclic existence; to do that, we must have the correct understanding of reality.

These three aspects are considered essential because they lead us to both the temporary and ultimate happiness we desire. Following them, we find everything we need.

Motivation and the Three Principal Aspects

If we have renunciation, bodhicitta, and wisdom, it helps us purify our motivation.

  • With a pure motivation, everything we do in our life becomes part of our path to practice.
  • In Buddhism, our motivation is the chief determining factor of the value of what we do—not the action itself, and not how it looks to others.

How does understanding and generating the three principal aspects of the path in our mind affect our motivation?

  • With renunciation, we have set our life’s purpose as something beyond "my happiness now." Whatever we do with the motivation to attain liberation becomes the cause of liberation.
  • With bodhicitta, we’ve set our life’s purpose to become a fully enlightened Buddha in order to be able to benefit others most effectively. Any action we do with that motivation becomes a cause for full enlightenment.
  • With wisdom, keeping that correct view instead of seeing everything as solid and inherently existent helps us see things as being like an illusion. Thus we’re less likely to get attached to things or get angry when things don’t go our way. Because it cuts the root of ignorance, having the correct view helps everything we do during the day to become something virtuous that leads us to enlightenment.


As we turn our minds toward the Buddha’s teachings:

  • First, arouse a wish for freedom.
  • Next, develop the altruistic intention.
  • Finally, gain a correct understanding of reality. In doing so, we banish the obstructions to liberation and to perfect enlightenment which are all rooted in our ignorance of how things actually exist.

Side Notes

Method and Wisdom

The path to enlightenment has two branches: method and wisdom.

  • Method is like the strong motivation that propels us to practice and all the virtuous activities that we do along the path.
  • Wisdom, or the correct view, is the deepening of our understanding of emptiness. Eventually, this leads to the eradication of ignorance, the root of all our suffering.

We want to make sure that we practice both method and wisdom. These are like the two wings of a bird; we need both to fly.

How the Three Principal Aspects Relate to the Three Levels of Spiritual Practitioners

  • Level 1: All practices relating to the insights of the initial and intermediate levels concern an understanding of the unsatisfactory and painful nature of cyclic existence and the development of a wish for freedom. So these are subsumed in the first of the principal paths, the wish to be free of cyclic existence.
  • Level 2: Once we understand our own plight, strong empathy arises for others who suffer similarly and who also can’t find the happiness they want. At this level, we cultivate love, compassion, and supreme altruism, out of a wish to become enlightened for the welfare of all.
  • Level 3: We can’t effectively help others unless we can discern what they need and how best to help them. "Effective" means we counteract the obstacles formed by the disturbing emotions (which prevent freedom) and the obstructions to knowledge of all phenomena.
    • All the difficulties living beings face spring from ignorance.
    • At this level (both intermediate and advanced), we cultivate the correct understanding of reality.

Thus the practices of all three levels are included within the three principal paths; these are the essentials of all the Buddha’s teachings.