The Three Pillars of the Path by Shenpen Rinpoche

I would like to present you briefly the Three Pillars of the Path. They are described this way, because if one is missing, the Path is not complete and higher realisations impossible. Whoever doesn’t understand the Three Pillars may eventually collect lot of words, learn a lot, even receive initiations and recite prayers and mantras, but won’t be able to complete the Path.

We often say that emptiness and Bodhicitta are like two wings of a bird flying towards enlightenment, but we do not say that without renunciation the bird won’t even take off.

These three words are easy to remember, anytime, anywhere, and can change a lot: in every sphere of our life, which we make, from its appearance to how we react in front of it.

Renunciation

It’s a word that tends to scare most people, because of our strong attachment to Samsaric pleasures, to our tendencies generated since immemorial lifetimes. It scares us because we do not understand well how karma really works, and instead of understanding the absence of inherent existence of all phenomena, our mind is constantly jumping towards outside objects – or at least what it considers as such – that we either like or dislike, to various degrees.

One person can be surrounded by lot of objects and luxurious items without any clinging, and another can be without anything and hang so much on what he doesn’t have. So renunciation doesn’t depend on what you possess or not, but on your attitude towards Samsara.

As long as we consider any phenomenon of Samsara as good or attractive, we create bonds which will result in taking rebirth, through the process we call the “Twelve Interdependent Links of Origination”.

It doesn’t mean that our life has to become miserable and ascetic. Buddhism doesn’t condemn pleasurable experiences. Actually, if you are experiencing something pleasurable it is because you have created the causes for it. To become upset by such experience or fight against it would make no sense. What we need to be aware of is the moment next to the mere experience of pleasure, which is the grasping of a phenomenon we perceive as existing on its own, and which we want to get again and again for the mere purpose of enjoying it.

Yet everything is so impermanent that we can wonder why we get attached to it. Money comes and goes. Beauty fades with time. Health rapidly changes. The only thing of which we can be sure is that we are going to die. But where and when is based solely on unknown causes from the past. And what will happen then (after our death) will result from all causes accumulated from past and current lives. Causes generated by our state of mind, thoughts, words, and actions.

Renunciation is the understanding that there is nothing valuable to gain in Samsara. All is impermanent, illusory, and the cause of suffering. Suffering based on that constant dissatisfaction, the source of all negative attitudes, willing only to seize more and more phenomena, regardless of the pain it could generate for others, or to one’s own mind.

Bodhicitta

Though often translated as “compassion”, the ultimate motivation is quite far from the common definition of it, often sounding more like pity, or empathy. Empathy is already very good by the way, as so many lack it, but it’s far from enough. What we could translate directly as “Awakening Mind” or “Mind for Enlightenment” is far above any such consideration. It implies a deep personal engagement to help all sentient beings, without exception (equanimity) and without any limit in time or space. It also involves an understanding of the true nature of reality and causality. One engages to walk the Path to enlightenment, for the sake of helping all sentient beings, until Samsara ends. That motivation is unique to Buddhism.

Bodhicitta is the motivation which generates the intention to come back into Samsara to help others, even though the practitioner has realized liberation, cutting all roots to Samsara. Without such motivation, at the time of death, an accomplished meditator could enter into Nirvana and stay in it for eons and eons. But the Bodhisattva will not, he will come back, for his main motivation is to serve as many beings as possible.

We can speak about two types of Bodhicitta:

Aspirational Bodhicitta, which is the complete wish to overcome our emotional afflictions and delusions, to realize our full potential to bring all sentient beings to the enlightened state, free from suffering.

Engaged Bodhicitta, which means engaging in the practices and behavior that bring about this goal by taking the Bodhisattva Vows to restrain from actions detrimental to it. In taking them, the trainee Bodhisattva vows to abstain from certain negative acts that would defer the Bodhisattva reaching enlightenment.

There are four trainings for Bodhicitta: 1) each day and night, recalling the advantages of the Bodhicitta motivation. 2) Remembering, reaffirming and intensifying this motivation by rededicating our efforts to reaching our enlightenment and the enlightenment of others. 3) Striving to build up positive mental states, deep awareness and wisdom. Benefiting and helping others using all the skills and means at our disposal, as effectively as we can, and doing so with as much deep awareness of reality as is possible. 4) Never giving up trying to help anyone, or at least wishing to be able to do so, no matter how difficult he or she may be.

Bodhicitta is thus not only to be nice to some people or wishing them good; even great good. It is about engaging ourselves for a higher cause, and it needs to be integrated in our everyday life, meditated upon again and again, until all obstacles for its emergence are eliminated. Then the Awakening Mind merges with our current mind, and can’t be separated anymore. Like milk poured into water.

Emptiness

This is the wisdom part. As long as we are “fighting against or for”, we live, experience and maintain duality, with all the consequences we know. We need to achieve PEACE in our own mind, which is the result of correct understanding, meditating, and letting go all of our attachments, including attachment to attachment, and attachment to non-attachment.

We don’t need to fight our emotions and thoughts; we need to understand and realize that they do not have any self-inherent existence, they are born from past causes, give results in our present, and fade away. But when we seize them, however, we create causes we will need to experience in the future.

We must be in the most important moment ever: the present moment. You are not creating causes in the past, neither in the future; you are creating in the present the causes you will experience in the next moment, year, life, and lives. What we experience now is the result of the past. How we react to these perceptions creates our future

Moreover, our mind perceives phenomena wrongly labelled as “outside”, wrongly perceived as “independent” from us, seemingly having their own self-inherent existence, while in reality they do not have this type of existence! They appear within our own mind, outcomes of actions of body, speech and mind we generated.

Past accumulated causes mature according to other causes and conditions, and result in perceptions; “food” for our mind, energy manifesting within our consciousness and interpreted as objects for our sense consciousnesses. They are born and perceived by our own consciousness, and thus are of the same nature. They are one with the consciousness which perceives them. There are no outside phenomena; they are like an image in the mirror of our own mind, the reflection of the moon in the lake of our own consciousness.

What brings you to justify the independent existence of a phenomenon, say, an object? Because you see it, touch it? What sees it? An eye. How do you prove the existence of that eye? Seeing and touching are feelings, perceptions, signals interpreted in your own mind. When you touch an object in your dreams, does this object really exist? Though at the moment you experience it in your dream reality it seems to be an external phenomenon which you can see, touch, and smell, yet when you wake up, you understand this object was 100% a creation of your own mind. Not 90% or 95%. 100%. That object existed only within your own mind, created and experienced only in your consciousness. Nobody created that perception for you. You can’t create an experience for someone else. In the same way, we can understand that, even if conventionally an object in this current reality has a function and a type of existence, ultimately it doesn’t hold any self-inherent reality; it appears and is experienced based upon causes formed by our mind, within our mind, for our mind. Having the correct understanding of these two realities keeps us away from the two extremes of nihilism and eternalism, and enables us to perceive the moment as it is: an illusion without any self-inherent existence, appearing and functioning in our conventional reality, and disappearing when its causes end. But our reaction to it, as long as we are in ignorance, in duality, generates an imprint on our stream of consciousness which will mature, and produce a result: another illusory perception in our reality.

As a first step towards the realization of the true nature of our reality, we need to understand that whatever we perceive, however we perceive, is wrong. We perceive spontaneously as self-inherent existence, which is false. We might not yet fully understand how things work, but they are not how they appear. Thus, we need to hold on our reactions towards what we perceive, to give ourselves a better chance to see correctly, and in order not to generate further causes of suffering.

When we are observing, we meditate on the results of causes created by ourselves. “Why react negatively or with excitement towards the result of my own mind, pictures reflected within myself”? We can still act and react according to conventions, the laws which sustain our reality, on the basis of our best possible motivation – Bodhicitta – generating that inextinguishable wish and attitude to help others, with the wisdom seeing all phenomena as illusory.

Then we must meditate and meditate, again and again, using both correct reasoning and a pacified mind placed on the result of that correct reasoning until we can “taste”; we can experience first inferentially, then directly, the true nature of the reality: its complete absence of inherent existence, it’s existence as being of the same nature as our mind, in total non-duality. We are not fighting against anything anymore.

The mind is then in an unshakeable state of peace and happiness!

From that state of mind having complete renunciation, Mind for Awakening, and ultimate wisdom, we are the perfect tool to spread wisdom and compassion.