Lam Rim: stages on the path to enlightenment, aka becoming a Buddha

Katinka Hesselink 2011-2013

In the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism the Lam Rim is the primary starting point of meditation. One is not supposed to move on to tantra without having at least a rough understanding of the Lam Rim - the stages on the Path To Enlightenment. At the basis of these Lam Rim Meditations are Tsong Kha Pa's various books about the Lam Rim. For instances, Thubten Chodron's Guided Meditations on the Stages of the Path takes after Tsong Kha Pa's structure and topics. The FPMT Discovering Buddhism program is a Lam Rim as well. See also my collection of Recommended Lam Rim Books.

According to Wikipedia, Lam Rim is (slightly rewritten), checked 2011:

Lamrim (Tibetan: "stages of the path") is a Tibetan Buddhist textual form for presenting the stages in the complete path to enlightenment as taught by Buddha. In Tibetan Buddhist history there have been many different versions of lamrim, presented by different teachers of the Nyingma, Kagyu and Gelug schools.  However, all versions of the lamrim are elaborations of Atiśa's 11th Century root text A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Bodhipathapradīpa).

Three kinds of motivation

The starting point of the lamrim is a division of Buddhist practitioners into beings of three scopes, based upon the motivation of their religious activity. Disregarded in this division are individuals whose motives revolve around benefits in their current life. Striving for a favorable rebirth is implicitly the minimum requirement for an activity or practice to be classified as spiritual.
Atiśa wrote in "Lamp of the Path" (verse 2) that one should understand that there are three kind of persons:
  1. persons of modest scope;
  2. persons of medium scope;
  3. persons of high scope.
Persons of modest motive search for happiness within samsara; their motive is to achieve high rebirth. Buddhists traditionally consider that this domain includes followers of most non-Buddhist religions who strive for a rebirth in a heaven.
Persons of medium motive are searching for their own ultimate peace and abandon worldly pleasure. This includes the paths of pratyekabuddhas and śravakabuddhas, which seek personal liberation alone, the traditional goal of Hīnayāna practice.
Based on their insight of their own suffering, persons of high motive seek by all means to stop the suffering of all beings. This is the Mahāyāna path of the samyaksaṃbuddhas.

Subjects of the lamrim

Although lamrim texts cover much the same subject areas, subjects within them may be arranged in different ways. The lamrim of Atiśa starts with bodhicitta, the altruistic mind of enlightenment, followed by taking the bodhisattva vows. Gampopa's lamrim, however, starts with the Buddha nature, followed by the preciousness of human rebirth. Tsongkhapa's texts start with reliance on a guru (Tib.: lama), followed by the preciousness of human rebirth, and continue with the paths of the modest, medium and high scopes.
Gampopa and Tsongkhapa expanded the short root-text of Atiśa into an extensive system to understand the entire Buddhist philosophy. In this way, subjects like karma, rebirth, Buddhist cosmology and the practice of meditation are gradually explained in logical order.

A commonly used outline for lamrim teachings today in English translation from Tibetan is that of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand: A Concise Discourse on the Path to Enlightenment (Spiritual Classics) by Pabongka Rinpoche. An abbreviated and annotated outline follows to show the structure of this lamrim.
  • the greatness of the author of the lamrim, to establish the authenticity of the teaching
  • the greatness of the lamrim itself, to gain respect for it
  • the way the instructions are to be received and given
  • the way the students are to be guided through the subjects
this fourth subject has two divisions:
  • the way to rely on a spiritual guide (aka guru yoga)
  • the way to train your mind on the basis of the correct way to rely on the spiritual guide
This last heading contains the rest of the instructions under the headings:
  • the way to encourage yourself to take the essence of this precious human rebirth
  • the way to take the essence of this precious human rebirth (that is: training your mind in the paths of the three scopes included within the lamrim)
The path shared with persons who have the modest scope motivation (striving for a rebirth in the upper realms)
  • the reality that this life will end and that you will die
  • the suffering in a rebirth in the lower realms (a rebirth as hell being, hungry ghost or animal, which you want to avoid)
  • (so you) take refuge in the three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
  • (and adjust your behaviour of body, speech and mind according to the) law of cause and effect/ karma
which will lead you to a favourable rebirth within cyclic existence in the human-, demigod-, or god realm.

The path of the four noble truths shared with persons who have the medium scope motivation (striving for liberation of cyclic existence)
  • The truth of suffering (in cyclic existence in general, including the favourable rebirths)
  • The truth of the causes of suffering (the afflictive emotions, especially ignorance)
  • The truth of cessation (there is a state that is free of suffering and its origins)
  • The truth of paths (the way to attain this state free of suffering and its causes by practising ethics, concentration and wisdom (aka realizing emptiness))
Another presentation of the middle scope subjects is the presentation of the 12 links of dependent arising
The training in the medium scope path will lead to the development of the wish to be liberated from all un-free rebirths in cyclic existence through the power of afflictive emotions
The path of persons who have the high scope motivation (striving for complete buddhahood)
  • the advantages of the mind of enlightenment (the wish to become a buddha for the welfare of all sentient beings)
  • the way to develop the mind of enlightenment
  • the 7-point instruction in seeing all sentient beings as your mothers (from previous lives and contemplating their kindness towards you)
  • the instruction on how to exchange your self-interest for others' interest (by looking at the drawbacks of self-cherishing and the advantages of cherishing others)
  • the way to train your mind after developing the mind of enlightenment
  • training in the perfection of generosity
  • training in the perfection of ethics
  • training in the perfection of patience
  • training in the perfection of joyful effort
  • training in the perfection of concentration
  • training in the perfection of wisdom
Videos introducing the Lam Rim by Robert Thurman:

A Survey of the Paths of Tibetan Buddhism - the Dalai Lama

More Tibetan Buddhism