Buddhist teachings are often summarized in terms of the "three principle aspects of the path": renunciation, compassion, and the wisdom realizing emptiness. They correspond roughly to the main tasks of the Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana teachings, although all three principles are contained in all three paths.
The first step on the path of renunciation is to begin searching for happiness within; the first step because it implies the gradual renouncing of the world as the source, locus, and cause of our happiness (and unhappiness). Renouncing the world does not mean rejecting the world. One can learn to live in it and with it, skillfully and positively, experiencing it and enjoying it, without taking it too seriously in any ultimate sense. Renouncing the world does not mean that one must live as a monk. A monks's renunciation vows are more extreme than a married, working person's need to be.
Renunciation is a path of gradually diminishing grasping. It is a voluntary relinquishing of one's stubbornly held selfish desires and aversions, not out of a sense of guilt, or a sense of duty, but from the direct, authentic, personal knowledge of the futility of seeking happiness through them. Turning the mind within, which is the path of renunciation, implies making a commitment to becoming familiar with the workings of one's own mind through meditation.
Renunciation is the hallmark of the Hinayana path. Basically, in a down-to-earth sense, it means taking care of oneself and not being a nuisance or burden to others. It means getting one's own house in order. This requires effort, perseverance, discipline, and patience -- four of the six paramitas or transcending virtues. These virtues are necessary to help us transcend the temptations of the samsaric world and focus on the path of inward reflection and examination which reveals the secrets of happiness.
Getting one's house in order means bring some order and discipline to one's mind. Our minds are the mansions in which we live. Ordinary, dualistic mind is disorderly. It is constantly agitated by hypermentation. We are constantly thinking in a stream of free association, but with so little awareness that if we were asked what we are thinking about we would have a hard time giving a coherent answer.
Yet our stream of consciousness constantly provokes negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, and depression. If we think an angry thought we will feel angry. If we think a depressing thought we will feel depressed. An old Buddhist maxim says: "Person with busy mind is bound to suffer."
There is a basic form of Buddhist meditation, called shamatha in Sanskrit, which is an antidote to the rambling hypermentation of dualistic mind; it is a stabilizing meditation or tranquility meditation. In Tibetan it is called shi ne, which literally means "dwelling in peace." It involves, in effect, training the mind to pay attention to the present moment.
When we are lost in hypermentation, we are usually thinking about the past or the future. We may be blissed out by the fantasy of some wished-for pleasure, or freaked out by the nightmare of a dreaded problem. Turbulent, discursive, dualistic mind prevents us from seeing clearly because it constantly obstructs the awareness of the present moment, and the present moment is always where life occurs. Our thoughts are the veil through which we see the present, as through a glass darkly. If we are unaware of the present we blind ourselves to the facts of life, and live instead in the wishful-fearful projections of dualistic mind.
Shamatha focuses the mind on the present moment, through breath awareness or some similar technique of mindfulness. Focusing on the present quiets the mind. This is because dualistic mind lives in secular time. It can remember the past and anticipate the future. It can imagine pleasures and pains that have not yet happened, may never have happened, or may never happen. The ego is lost in historical time. Compared to the turbulent surf of samsara, a present-centered mind is quiet, serene, undisturbed, and clear, like the still waters of a deep mountain lake.
Quieting the mind has its own euphoriant effect. It is like the relief one feels after leaving the cacaphony of city traffic for the quiet of a country meadow or a still forest pool. If one practices shamatha only for the feeling of inner peace and quiet, one will have received a great insight into the secrets of happiness. But shamatha has another function.
A quiet, still mind can see the truths of existence more clearly than a mind confused by unceasing and frantic hypermentation. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche described this function of shamatha using the metaphor of the lamp on the miner's cap to represent our awareness. Ordinary mind is like a lamp which is constantly moving without focusing on anything in particular and, thus, is unaware of the true nature of the surroundings. Meditative mind is like a miner's lamp which is steady and penetrating, revealing clearly and distinctly every feature of the world around us.
When the mind is quiet, steady, and clear, it can turn its attention on itself. This process of becoming familiar with our minds is called vipashyana meditation, also known as insight or analytic meditation. Since our knowledge of the world and ourselves is gained through mind, the analysis of mind reveals previously hidden knowledge about the nature of the phenomenal world, including ourselves. Through vipashyana we can become familiar with the operations of our mind -- our desires, aversions, and selfishness -- as well as the facts of existence -- suffering, impermanence, and emptiness.
The second principle aspect of the path is compassion, the hallmark quality of the Mahayana path. The secret of this teaching is that happiness is not possible without compassion. We think of compassion as for the benefit of others and, indeed, it is. But compassion also undermines narcissism, which is one of the primary causes of the pain we inflict on ourselves.
Analytic meditation can give us insight into our narcissistic motivations and strivings, and help us to see how they create our own troubles and pain. Once we have seen this clearly, it is a matter of acting intelligently, in one's own self-interest, to tame the selfish beast within and turn one's power and skill to helping others do the same. It is like pulling one's hand from the flame once we realize it burns.
Developing compassion is one of the most difficult aspects of the path. On first reflection, compassion seems contrary to the life instinct which, in humans, is sublimated into selfishness. The basic biological principles of life are self-protective and self-enhancing. It is, therefore, counter-intuitive to altruistically surrender the selfish impulse and replace it with a concern for others. The first obstacle to the development of compassion, therefore, is self-clinging.
The second obstacle to the development of compassion is going to the opposite extreme of giving oneself away. The path of wisdom is a path of balance. Extreme virtue, to the point of caricature, is often an ego game, a materialistic or greedy attitude disguised as spirituality. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this "spiritual materialism", ego clinging in the guise of ego transcendence. (Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa) "How wonderful I am for being so spiritual, giving, and compassionate," is the call of the novice.
The dialectics of compassion are revealed in the practice of generosity, another of the six transcending virtues. Generosity is not merely a matter of giving away money or precious objects. Generosity is giving of oneself. It is lovingly giving oneself to others.
In Buddhist psychology the virtue of generosity has two potential flaws. One, obviously, is stinginess, which is a form of self-clinging. The other flaw is giving away too much. Giving out of guilt, or out of shame, or out of pride is not generosity. Giving in order to get something back is not generosity; it is a form of contrived selfishness which disguises itself as compassion.
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche explained it this way: In paraphrase, he said, "People want to see me and talk with me all the time. If I met with everyone I would have no time to eat or rest. I would die in a few weeks and then I would be no good to anyone. So I limit the time I can give for interviews." This extraordinarily compassionate man was teaching that saying yes to everyone is not compassion. It is a form of servitude, probably born in guilt. Compassion permits saying no.
Compassion is predicated on the first principal aspect of the path, which teaches us to take care of ourselves, for our sake as well as for others. In its deeper meaning, therefore, developing compassion involves finding a balance between what we need for our own physical and spiritual well-being and what we are able to give others. Compassion is a balance between being an individual and being in relationship with others.
The third principle aspect of the path is developing the wisdom that realizes the emptiness of all phenomena, including the emptiness of self. This special wisdom, or insight, is gained through vipashyana and other advanced meditations such as Mahamudra and Dzog Chen. Vipashyana means "special or superior insight." The fruit of vipashyana is the wisdom which realizes emptiness. This is the wisdom of the sixth paramita, the sixth transcending virtue. It is the full development of the capacity to see and is, thus, the antidote to avidya, the ignorance which is at the root of our self-imposed troubles and unhappiness.
The wisdom which realizes emptiness is in proper harmony with the facts of existence. As we noted earlier, this is a prerequisite for enduring happiness. The realization of emptiness provides a coherent cosmology of the world which can serve as a solid foundation for the guidance of life. If phenomena are impermanent and empty of true substance, if self is impermanent and lacking substance or soul, then we must train our minds to accept the fact, rather than to deny and repress it. We must beware (be aware) of ego's attempts to find solid, enduring reference points in order to identify, protect, preserve, and expand itself. For this is the cause of much of the suffering we impose on ourselves and others.
The first principle aspect of the path, renunciation, teaches us to take care of ourselves, at least so we are not a burden on others. It is training in self-discipline and self-reliance. The second principle aspect of the path, compassion, permits us to overcome our crippling narcissism and actually connect with other people at the heart, which means with empathy for their Happiness Projects. This is the secret of loving relationships. The third principle aspect of the path is the wisdom realizing emptiness. It is the wisdom which sees existence as a dance without a dancer. When the spiritual journey into our own minds leads us to this wisdom, there is nothing more to do than laugh and join the dance.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Snow Lion Publications. ©1997.
The Happiness Project: Transforming the Three Poisons that Cause the Suffering We Inflict on Ourselves and Others
by Ron Leifer, M.D.
Clearly written, easy to understand and put into practice. Dr. Leifer, a psychiatrist, borrows from his Buddhist practice and his clinical experience to offer profound insights into the sources of anxiety and depression in the West. He makes a compelling case that the projects we develop to make us happy become the sources of our
unhappiness. The book takes an objective stance and casts a reality check on politics, religion, and many other belief systems we employ in our societies in order to alleviate pain and suffering and to strive for those things that can bring us joy and everlasting happiness.
Ron Leifer, M.D. is a psychiatrist who trained under Dr. Thomas Szasz and the anthropologist Ernest Becker. He studied with various Buddhist teachers in the seventies and in 1981 took refuge vows with Khenpo Khartar Rinpoche, abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York. He helped organize the first KTD Buddhism and Psychotherapy Conference in New York City in 1987. Since 1992, he has been associated with Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca, New York as a student and teacher. Dr. Leifer has lectured widely and published two books and more than fifty articles on a wide variety of psychiatric issues. He has lately turned his attention fully to the interplay between Buddhism and psychotherapy.