Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, Vol. 5 - Selections

A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo — Volume 5: Insight


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Why Insight Is Needed

(ii) How to practice insight

THE TITLE OF THE FINAL section of the Lamrim Chenmo says:

How to practice insight, the essence of wisdom, after practicing the bodhisattvas’ deeds on the stages of the path of the great being.

Here we find an explanation of the latter stages of the Mahayana path. A “great being” is someone who has developed universal love and compassion and who always takes more care of others’ problems than his or her own. The heartfelt wish of a great being is to free all sentient beings from cyclic existence. Therefore a great being takes on the responsibility to lead all sentient beings away from suffering and place them in a state of freedom and lasting peace. Such a being will sacrifice him-or herself in order to benefit others. When this heart-felt sense of responsibility arises spontaneously it is called bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is literally the mind of enlightenment; it is the wish to attain buddhahood as soon as possible solely for the purpose of benefiting others. When bodhicitta arises spontaneously within one’s mindstream, one enters the Mahayana path; at this point one becomes a bodhisattva.

Bodhicitta alone is not enough to attain enlightenment. So what else must we do? We must practice the various stages of the path from the basic level, through the intermediate level, and finally through all the practices of a being of great spiritual capacity. After a practitioner has developed bodhicitta, he or she engages in the bodhisattva’s deeds or activities. This means taking the bodhisattva vows and practicing the six perfections. The vows embrace all physical, verbal, and mental actions, whereby whatever we do is only for the benefit of others and never just for ourselves. The great waves of the bodhisattva’s deeds can be summarized as the six perfections: generosity, ethical conduct, patience, joyous effort, meditative concentration, and wisdom. The first five perfections are the method side of a bodhisattva’s practice, which have already been explained in earlier volumes of this series. The sixth perfection is wisdom. The subject of this volume, except for a short section at the end of the text on how to practice tantra, is how to develop wisdom or insight.


Before beginning a discussion about how to develop insight, it is helpful to recall briefly the nature of the fifth perfection, meditative concentration. This is the ability of the mind to settle calmly on the object of one’s choice for as long as one wishes. With meditative concentration the mind can comfortably focus without distraction. Usually when we try to think about something the mind stays with the object for a short while—but before we know it, the mind goes off somewhere else without control. When we develop a special type of single-pointed meditative concentration known as śamatha, the mind no longer has this negative quality. It can remain focused on a chosen object for any length of time effortlessly and without distraction.

However, special conditions and great effort are needed to train the mind to focus this way. So when striving to develop śamatha, yogis usually go to live in quiet solitary places like mountain caves or forests. They know that if they stay close to distracting activities and interfering people, their minds will be filled with disturbing thoughts. If they are in the presence of alluring objects of the senses, they will fall under the power of attraction to them. In contrast, when sitting in a deep cave without hearing or seeing much of the outside world, concentration can arise more easily. Silence and solitude are required to free the mind to focus joyfully on an object of meditation.

Meditative concentration has many wonderful qualities, but three special ones should be noted in particular. The first is that when we have mastered śamatha, all discursive thought ceases. Although some meditation techniques employ analysis, the purpose of śamatha meditation is for the mind to stay on its object for as long as may be desired without any distraction or agitation. Once we find the object, we do not examine it. In this meditation the mind is like a butter lamp; once lit, it burns continuously for as long as the fuel lasts. The second special quality of śamatha is a mental clarity that is free of laxity and dullness. Generally we are able to focus on an object for only a short while. At a certain point we lose our clarity regarding the object and our mind becomes more and more dull, until finally we fall asleep. This is laxity or sinking. Both gross and subtle sinking are obstacles to meditative concentration. Tsongkhapa explained mental clarity in detail earlier in the Lamrim Chenmo, specifying how the object appears and how the mind holds the object with an awareness that is neither too tight nor too loose. The third special quality of śamatha is a mental and physical pleasure, a naturally arising delight. Usually when we sit for a long time the body starts to ache and does not want to cooperate with the mind. But with continuous mental training, a special energy-wind becomes active in the body. The body’s lack of cooperation with the mind slowly diminishes, and it becomes closer to the mind, which has already developed some mental pliancy. As the mind and its subtle physical vehicle, the energy-wind, begin to function in tandem, a physical pliancy is produced. Associated with this is a subtle sensual bliss beneficial for meditation because it eliminates any feeling of tiredness. As a result, yogis can remain for a long time in śamatha meditation. Some can stay in meditative absorption for days or even weeks without any hardship or without even noticing that they have a body.

In brief, there are two types of pliancy: mental pliancy, which arises first, and then physical pliancy. Each of these produces a subtle feeling of pleasure or bliss. Here we should note that each pliancy and the bliss that it causes arise at different times. The bliss associated with physical pliancy arises first, which then influences the mind to experience an even more subtle bliss. These pleasurable feelings are a little gross upon first arising, but gradually they calm down. Eventually the physical and mental enjoyment subsides and rests at a perfect level without disturbing the yogi’s meditation. These subtle pleasures cannot be described in words.

Although meditative concentration possesses the special qualities of non-discursiveness, clarity, and bliss, it is only a temporary peace. It is not the final goal. Many practitioners achieve śamatha, but by itself this is a worldly goal. There are two kinds of goals: mundane and supramundane. Mundane goals are included within samsara, whereas supramundane goals are the liberation from samsara and the attainment of complete enlightenment. Here in conjunction with śamatha we must develop the supreme wisdom, or vipaśyanā, that investigates reality and sees it clearly. Analytical investigation and single-pointed concentration may seem contradictory, but when they are fully developed they are not. Some monastic textbooks explain how they function together using the example of a tiny fish in a huge bowl of clear water. The water is completely still, with no wind rippling the surface, and the tiny fish swims gently without disturbing the water at all. In a similar way the main part of the mind remains stable and focused, while a subtle analytical wisdom investigates and comes to understand the nature of reality. This illustration is given in the context of combining śamatha with vipaśyanā that analyzes the ultimate, for the purpose of gaining freedom from samsara or attaining enlightenment. This is what we really need to practice. But to accomplish a lesser goal śamatha may be combined in a similar way with vipaśyanā that analyzes the mundane.

The supreme mundane goal is the highest level of the formless realm. According to Buddhist cosmology there are three realms within cyclic existence: the desire realm, the form realm, and the formless realm. These three realms can refer to places; however, in the context of śamatha meditation they primarily indicate different levels of mental development. Above the desire realm are the four mental stages of the form realm. Above this is the formless realm, also divided into four levels: limitless space, limitless consciousness, nothingness, and the peak of samsaric existence. If we count the desire realm as one and add the four levels of the form realm and the four levels of the formless realm, there are nine divisions altogether. We distinguish these mental levels by the type of attachment manifesting in the mind of a being dwelling there. For example, the desire realm is identified by attachment to the objects of the senses, whereas the formless realm is identified by attachment to the bliss of concentration.

Both mundane and supramundane paths require the development of meditative concentration. This is not easy to achieve. To develop śamatha we must be free of strong attachment to sensual pleasure, though we will still have subtle, innate attachment. If we are addicted to enjoying the objects of the senses, such as visual beauty or sexual touch, the mind will have no place to abide calmly. So the way to achieve śamatha is to reduce worldly attachment and attraction to sensual pleasures. This is not a uniquely Buddhist practice; even non-Buddhist yogis engage in this practice to achieve śamatha. As soon as a person develops śamatha, his or her mind is superior to the rough and low mind of ordinary beings living in the desire realm. The next step for practitioners on a mundane path is to develop insight so as to remove the manifest mental afflictions associated with the various levels of samsara—though the innate afflictions will still remain. First they try to remove the mental afflictions of the desire realm, which are the roughest and most powerful. Then they try   to remove the intermediate mental afflictions of the form realm. The subtler mental afflictions of the formless realm are the most difficult to remove, so they are left until last.

The mundane insight meditation to remove the mental afflictions of the desire realm involves comparing the desire realm with the first level of the form realm. We reflect on the nature of the desire realm, the ugliness and dirtiness of the body, the shortness of life, and the pain endured by all the various beings, from the lowest hell being to the highest desire-realm god. In every part of the desire realm there is the physical suffering of birth, aging, sickness, and death. Life in the desire realm is more gross and more painful than life in the first concentration, or dhyāna, which is the lowest level of the form realm. Life in the form realm is characterized by peacefulness, a long life span, and being unburdened by a physical body made of flesh and bones. Form-realm beings have subtle mental bodies that are free of physical suffering; just as a ray of light cannot be cut with a knife, their bodies of light cannot be hurt.

Those who engage in śamatha combined with analytical meditation that compares the characteristics of the desire realm and the first level of the form realm are on the path of the first dhyāna. This is the way to remove attachment to the desire realm and attain the first level of the form realm. The antidote that removes the obstructions is the union of śamatha and insight. While the practitioner engages in this particular meditation practice, the desire-realm afflictions do not manifest in the mind. They are completely subdued. When these mental afflictions are removed we obtain the fruit of our efforts, a deep mental absorption. In the next life we rise above the desire realm and are reborn in the first dhyāna. A practitioner of any spiritual tradition can rise through the levels of the form and formless realms in this way. Comparing the roughness of the first dhyāna with the peace of the second dhyāna, we remove the mental afflictions of the first dhyāna and attain the second level. Then we compare the roughness of the second dhyāna with the peace of the third dhyāna and so on through the levels of the formless realm until we reach the peak of samsara.

In the context of the mundane path, “remove” means to temporarily remove. The meditation practice combining śamatha and mundane insight removes the mental afflictions respective to each stage of mental development only for the present. In other words, the manifest mental afflictions are suppressed, but their seeds are still in the practitioner’s mindstream. Since the mental afflictions are only suppressed, the cessation of the misery of each level is merely temporary. We can temporarily stop the mental afflictions; we can also stop gross consciousness altogether for a period of time in a way that is much more subtle than deep sleep. But even if the mental afflictions and their results have ceased for a number of years, the situation is not permanent. They will arise again. Every being born into any level of the form and formless realms is still under the power of karma and mental afflictions. Someone may be born in a good place, but when that karmic ripening or experience is finished they can fall down into a lower rebirth.

Furthermore, this type of meditation can only temporarily remove the mental afflictions up through the third level of the formless realm, nothingness. It cannot remove the mental afflictions of the highest formless realm, the peak of samsaric existence. So the achievement of even the highest level of the formless realm is not a true cessation. Temporary cessations are not real cessations; they are just called cessations. A true cessation is a permanent cessation of a portion of the obstructions to liberation, which are the mental afflictions and their seeds. To remove the mental afflictions permanently one must practice a supramundane path combining meditative concentration with the insight cognizing emptiness. In other words, in conjunction with a śamatha that is peaceful, stable, and blissful, we must develop a vipaśyanā or wisdom that properly understands reality. Wisdom is a mind that arises from investigating the way things actually exist; it sees emptiness, śūnyatā, clearly. We should not be satisfied with any lower level of attainment. Śāntideva says:

Vipaśyanā conjoined with śamatha
Destroys the mental afflictions;
Having understood this, first search for śamatha
Achieved through the joy of being unattached to the world.

Tsongkhapa’s point is that to remain for an incredibly long time in a subtle state of bliss is not the main reason for developing śamatha. We begin by developing meditative concentration. However, not only must we not be satisfied with mere meditative concentration, or śamatha conjoined with mundane insight, but we should also join śamatha to supreme insight in order to destroy the mental afflictions permanently. Permanent cessation of mental afflictions begins owing to a much higher level of insight meditation than those on the mundane paths. Only with supramundane insight can we get rid of the seeds of the mental afflictions and thereby achieve any permanent cessation. In short, the purpose of developing meditative concentration is to unite it with supreme insight so that we can eliminate all the mental afflictions with their seeds.

If we do not have a realization of śūnyatā, then no matter how skillfully   or how long we engage in śamatha meditation, we will not eliminate the two kinds of self-grasping: grasping at a self of persons and grasping at a self of phenomena. The primary problem is the grasping at a self of persons, or more specifically, the egotistic view that holds oneself to be truly existent. Although we do not consciously use these descriptions, whenever we think or say something about ourselves, we usually feel that there is a “me” that is absolutely real. If somebody says, “You are stupid, and I am better than you,” our sense of self rears up and angrily objects. We have an innate attitude that “I” have a special kind of existence, an identity that is almost different from the aggregates making up the body and mind, which feels solid and absolute. Likewise, when we consider “my body” we usually grasp at the self of phenomena; we have an underlying assumption that our body possesses an inherent characteristic of bodyhood that is substantial and unique. What is the body? When we look at it carefully all we can find is hair, skin, flesh, bones, muscles, blood, an upper part, a lower part, inside and outside, and so on. There is no actual “body” existing from its own side.

Usually we do not analyze things this way. We naturally hold things to be inherently and absolutely existent. Simply seeing that they exist, we feel that they exist from their own side. This is called self-grasping. Every ordinary being has self-grasping. Even animals have it, though they do not have the language to express it. They recognize danger, experience fear, and know how to protect themselves. Even little animals that live underground will stick their heads out of their burrows and glance in every direction before they come out. I do not think they are trying to exercise their necks! They are checking to see if it is safe to leave their holes. They recognize when an enemy comes close, then they run and hide or attack in order to defend themselves. They are attached to themselves, to their friends, and to their offspring. They have a robust sense of self and a strong self-centered attitude.

We need to differentiate between the self that exists, which is dependently imputed on the aggregates, and the self that is held to exist from its own side, which does not exist at all. Only by means of the analytical wisdom realizing selflessness can we understand that there is no such thing as the latter kind  of self, the object of self-grasping. There is no way to get rid of self-grasping until we achieve this insight. Just as light clears away darkness, the wisdom understanding emptiness that arises from engaging in ultimate analysis clears away ignorance. Ignorance is the distorted view holding things to be truly and objectively existent, just as they appear to the ordinary mind. Ignorance pervades all the other mental afflictions, such as desire, attachment, hatred, and jealousy. We naturally hold things to exist in the way that we see them. The innate mind of ignorance grasps whatever appears as it appears and holds it like that without any examination. Āryadeva says in his Four Hundred Stanzas (Catuḥ-śataka):

Just as the tactile sense power pervades the whole body,
Ignorance abides in all [the mental afflictions].
Therefore by destroying ignorance
All mental afflictions are destroyed.

The body has many parts and various sense faculties, such as the eyes and visual sense power, the ears and auditory sense power, and so on. But the tactile sense power pervades all of them. It is present from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. In a similar way ignorance pervades and influences all the mental afflictions. They all arise in dependence on ignorance. Therefore we can eliminate all the eighty-four thousand mental afflictions by destroying their root, ignorance. Thus the most important antidote is the antidote to ignorance; it is the wisdom directly realizing emptiness that we must develop and utilize in meditation. It will completely uproot ignorance and its seed.

The great Indian scholar Kamalaśīla wrote in detail about the objects and techniques of meditation. He too says it is not sufficient to rely simply on meditative stabilization, or samādhi, because it is not able to remove mental afflictions from the root. In the first Stages of Meditation (Bhāvanākrama), he says:

When you have stabilized your mind on the object, you must analyze it with wisdom. The dawning of this wisdom clears away the root of all mental afflictions. If you do not do this, then, just like the non-Buddhists, you will not abandon the afflictions through mere samādhi alone. The King of Concentrations Sutra (Samādhi-rāja-sūtra) says:

Although worldly ones cultivate samādhi,
That does not destroy the false notion of self;
Afflictions return and disturb them,
Like Udraka, who cultivated samādhi up to this level.

Non-Buddhist yogis can achieve very high levels of samādhi, including the absorption of cessation, which stops the mind and mental factors and leads to rebirth in the highest level of the formless realm. But even this meditation does not get rid of the mental afflictions completely. It can only temporarily eliminate them up to the level of nothingness, the third level of the formless realm.

Kamalaśīla is not merely asserting this; he quotes from the King of Concentrations Sutra to prove his point. The first line of the stanza refers to “worldly ones.” These are ordinary living beings imputed in dependence on what is perishable and a mere aggregation—the mental and physical aggregates. Neither the body nor the mind is a single absolute thing. Each is an aggregation of many interdependent components. The body is a combination of flesh, blood, bones, and so on. The mind is a combination of feelings, perceptions, and so on. These aggregates are contaminated, impermanent, and subject to birth, aging, sickness, and death, without any freedom or power of their own. Even though mundane beings may cultivate meditative concentration and come to possess its special qualities—nondiscursiveness, clarity, and joy—they have only temporarily subdued certain obstructions. No matter how much they engage in this kind of meditation practice, it cannot get rid of the seeds of mental afflictions. The afflictions arise again because these yogis have not first abandoned grasping at the self. Until they have accustomed themselves to a direct realization of emptiness and uprooted ignorance, the necessary causes and conditions will gather together and ripen into a manifestation of the egotistic view, giving rise to the other mental afflictions. This leads to the creation of karma and to further rebirth in samsara.

The last line of the sutra mentions Udraka as an example. He was a non-Buddhist yogi who spent so many years in meditation that he accomplished all four concentrations of the form realm and the first three absorptions of the formless realm up to and including the level of nothingness. The mental afflictions on these seven levels no longer arose within his mental continuum, and those afflictions on the highest level of the formless realm, the peak of samsaric existence, are so very subtle that the meditator almost appears to be an arhat. At this point Udraka no longer experienced any noticeable attachment, hatred, or other affliction, so he thought that he had achieved liberation from samsara. During the time it had taken him to achieve this level, Udraka’s hair had grown very long. One day he awoke from his meditation and found that his hair had been eaten away by mice. This disturbed him. Seeing that his mind was agitated, he realized that mental afflictions were still present in his mental continuum. This made him angry. The karma of anger later caused him to fall into a lower rebirth. This story shows that Udraka’s concentration was limited to the mundane level, indicated by the final phrase “up to this level” in the preceding verse, without touching the supramundane.

If such an accomplished yogi cannot gain freedom from samsara through his meditation, then what kind of meditation do we need to do in order to gain liberation? The answer is given in the next stanza of this sutra:

If you analyze the selflessness of phenomena,
And if, having analyzed, you meditate upon it,
This will cause the result: the attainment of nirvana.
There is no peace from any other cause.

Only through precisely analyzing the nature of phenomena can we generate the wisdom that sees selflessness, which is the cause of the final result, nirvana. Emptiness cannot be realized without refined logical examination. We must investigate how the subject and its object exist. Realizing emptiness does not mean making the mind empty by letting go of all thoughts. Some people think that every thought is pervaded by the mental affliction of ignorance and thus having no thoughts at all is the realization of śūnyatā. Tsongkhapa and Kamalaśīla strongly attack this interpretation. They say that if emptiness simply means making one’s mind empty so that nothing appears to it, nothing is known, and nothing is grasped, then it is like not having a mind at all. Cultivating a practice that makes the mind dull, as if it were deeply asleep, is not productive. Some animals hibernate during the winter; they sleep without any thoughts arising, and nothing bothers them for several months. But even though they spend all this time without thinking, they do not realize the truth. Their long sleep does not get rid of their mental afflictions. When they wake up in the spring they are still in samsara. The way to realize emptiness   is to develop an understanding of emptiness through analysis and then meditate on what has been understood. In this way the object gradually becomes clearer and clearer until one finally has a direct realization. In brief, first we must examine in what way things are empty. Once we find the correct view of emptiness, we meditate utilizing that wisdom continuously. That meditation is the cause for attaining the final result, nirvana.

Suppose someone asks, “Is there another way to obtain liberation without needing to realize emptiness?” In the last line of the preceding stanza, Buddha clearly says, “No, the permanent peace of nirvana has no other cause. It is impossible to pacify suffering and the cause of suffering without the special wisdom that directly realizes emptiness. Meditation on any path that does not have this wisdom cannot free you from suffering and its cause.” Indeed, if there were another way we would not bother trying to understand śūnyatā.

Tsongkhapa draws this King of Concentrations Sutra quotation from the first of Kamalaśīla’s three Stages of Meditation texts. He quotes from all three texts at various points in his Lamrim Chenmo to support his views on emptiness. So it is helpful to know how and why Kamalaśīla wrote them. Buddhism first came to Tibet during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century. Later, in the eighth century, King Trisong Detsen fostered the spread of Buddhism in Tibet. He invited the great Indian master Śāntarakṣita to give monastic ordinations and teachings on the sutras. At that time the original religion of Tibet, called Bon, was still very popular. Bon involves the worship of local spirits and nature gods, such as tree gods and water gods. Each family also had their own gods that had to be worshiped so that they would not cause harm. Many of the king’s ministers were followers of Bon and were critical of the new religion from India. They tried to influence the king to protect Bon and prevent Buddhism from taking root in Tibet. In response, Śāntarakṣita urged the king to invite to Tibet the great Indian tantric adept and magician, Guru Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava spread the Dharma  by dealing with the superstitions of the people and subduing the local demons. With his powers he overawed the local spirits; those gods promised to abandon their harmful ways and protect people engaged in virtuous activities. They are now called Dharma protectors because they assist practitioners of Buddhism. Padmasambhava also gave tantric teachings and initiations to the members of the royal family, the nobility, and certain restricted gatherings of people.

In the eighth century there was a strong relationship between China and Tibet. The Buddhism being brought to Tibet from China was quite different from the teachings transmitted by Śāntarakṣita. Indian Buddhism focuses on abandoning the ten nonvirtuous actions, engaging in virtuous activities, taking vows, and all the other basic practices. In contrast, a form of Chinese Buddhism exemplified by the teachings of the great Chinese master Hashang Mahayana seemed very simple. He gave Dharma teachings that everyone, even ordinary laypeople, could practice easily. He taught, “Do not think anything and do not do anything.” He told people not to engage in discursive thought. Why? The reason he gave is that all thoughts—judgments about things being good or bad, and so on—are obstructions to enlightenment in the same way that white clouds and black clouds both obstruct the sunlight, golden chains and iron chains both tie you down, and white dogs and black dogs both bite. He claimed that good thoughts and bad thoughts function in this way, so they should be stopped altogether. The mind should be completely blank. Hashang and his followers propounded that the mind is like a clear, colorless crystal. If we put a colored cloth underneath this clear crystal each of the colors will be reflected in it, though the crystal itself remains free of color. Similarly, the mind is influenced by sensory awareness and thoughts, but once we put these discursive thoughts aside the pure mind is revealed; this pure mind is the essence of buddhahood. Hashang’s followers contend that everyone is already a buddha; the nature of the mind is already completely pure. This teaching on the nature of the mind is special, but it needs to be understood properly. It is not to be taken literally.

However, in those ancient times some Tibetans were attracted to a literal interpretation of the approach taught by Hashang. They thought it was simple and marvelous; it did not require any scholarship or effort. There was no need to worry, no need to do anything, no need to engage in complicated meditation—just sit there and relax! Hashang had masses of followers from eastern Tibet all the way up to Lhasa. The king found himself in a difficult situation and wondered what to do about the rivalry between these two very different kinds of Buddhism. Hashang’s approach appeared to be opposite to the Indian Buddhist approach, which insisted on thinking carefully, abandoning nonvirtuous behavior, and replacing it with virtuous behavior. The king did not want to have two conflicting views in his land. Śāntarakṣita, prior to leaving Tibet, had advised the king that if a situation like this were to arise he should invite Kamalaśīla, Śāntarakṣita’s own disciple, to come from India to clear up the confusion about Buddhist philosophy and practice.       

So King Trisong Detsen invited Kamalaśīla and a few of his Indian followers to come to Lhasa, where Hashang and his disciples had already gathered. The king and the Chinese master, with their respective entourages, went to welcome Kamalaśīla at the Tsangpo River, south of Lhasa. The party from Lhasa was on the north bank of the river, and the party from India approached on the south bank. Before they met, each of the great Buddhist masters wanted to check the skill and intelligence of the other. Kamalaśīla raised his walking stick and turned it in a certain way to ask, “What is the cause of samsara?”   In response the Chinese master held the two sleeves of his coat to indicate, “Grasping at the duality of subject and object is the cause of samsara.” In other words, he was expressing his view that there should be no thought or any kind of mental grasping.

The king asked the two teachers to debate. He proclaimed that whoever lost the debate must offer a flower garland or silk scarf to the winner and then return home. The winner would remain in Tibet to teach the Dharma, and Tibetans would thereafter follow the winner’s view. Scholars have not determined whether the debate took place in Samye, Lhasa, or western Tibet. However, it does not really matter where it took place. As you may know, Indian scholars are great logicians; if there is a debate they will definitely win. So Kamalaśīla won. Hashang lost and had to go back to China. From that time onward, just as the king had proclaimed, Tibetans would follow the Indian Madhyamaka view and practice. The king recognized that his subjects needed clear and practical instructions on how to do that, so he asked Kamalaśīla to write a text explaining the teachings.

Based on this request Kamalaśīla wrote the three Stages of Meditation texts. In these texts he negates wrong views and proves the correct view by means of logical reasoning supported by a great many scriptural quotations. In the second Stages of Meditation he says we must be certain that the wisdom realizing selflessness is necessary to sever the root of cyclic existence. Many great non-Buddhist yogis had developed the highest level of mundane meditative concentration and thereby attained five types of supernormal knowledge: the divine eye, divine hearing, the ability to see past lives, miraculous powers, and the ability to read the mind of those whose attainments are lower than or equal to one’s own. However, there is a sixth supernormal knowledge not attainable merely through developing mundane meditative concentration: a direct realization that one’s mental afflictions have been permanently removed. This knowledge cannot be attained by non-Buddhists because they still have a strongly entrenched egotistic view. According to Buddhism these non-Buddhist yogis have many virtuous qualities, so most likely they would be reborn in the god realms. However, all their achievements occur within cyclic existence, not beyond it. Without the correct view of selflessness they have no means to obtain the sixth supernormal knowledge and be freed from samsara. It is impossible to attain liberation from cyclic existence without developing the wisdom realizing selflessness through analytical reasoning. The Scriptural Collection of the Bodhisattvas (Bodhisattva-piṭaka) says:

Being satisfied by mere meditative concentration, without realizing reality as explained in the scriptures, gives rise to pride—thinking that you have attained the path cultivating the profound meaning. Thus you will not be liberated from cyclic existence. Having considered this, I say: “It is through hearing others that you will be liberated from aging and death.”

Here Buddha clearly specifies that merely emptying the mind is not enough. The phrase “mere meditative concentration” refers to mastering the nine stages of developing śamatha, through which we can keep the mind steady and free of distracting thoughts. But if, as a result of this practice, we view all thoughts as obstructions to enlightenment and see the mind’s true nature as free of thought and without any reflection of objects, then we will be greatly misled. Buddha voices his concern that if we give rise to this experience we may feel pride, thinking, “I have found the true nature of the mind, the profound reality.” Such a thought prevents us from gaining liberation from cyclic existence, because this experience is not the realization of emptiness that destroys ignorance. In this quotation, “the path cultivating the profound meaning” refers to a realization of emptiness; the error is to think that emptiness refers to the mind being empty of all perceptions and conceptions rather than to the emptiness of inherent existence. When we make this mistake, we view all thoughts as obstructions to enlightenment.

Some people think that they do not need to study or hear the teachings from another person. They think that wisdom arises from within, simply through keeping the mind contained and stopping all thoughts and  perceptions. But this is a misconception. Therefore Buddha says that we need to hear the teachings from others in order to become free of aging and death. We do not naturally have knowledge of ultimate reality, so we must learn about it from reliable, holy teachers. In this way we can develop the wisdom that arises from hearing about selflessness. After this we must study and analyze the meaning of the teachings we have heard. This is how to develop the wisdom that arises from thinking. Then we must meditate on what we have understood by means of this wisdom arisen from thinking and analyzing. In this way we develop the wisdom that arises from meditation. Through the development of these three kinds of wisdom we will be liberated from the misery of aging and death. Aging and death is the last of the twelve links of dependent arising. Each link arises in dependence on the previous one. So to become free of aging and death and the entire cycle, we move back through the twelve links to reach the root of the whole process—ignorance of the way things actually exist. Ignorance can only be uprooted by its opposite: the special wisdom that sees the true nature of reality, which arises from hearing, thinking, and meditating.

If the wisdom perceiving reality arose simply by stopping all thought and activity, why would Buddha have given so many teachings on wisdom? Why would so many scriptures state that we should hear, study, and concentrate on these teachings to gain a realization of the ultimate truth? Some Buddhist scriptures unambiguously explain reality, whereas others explicitly address other topics such as the truth of suffering and its cause or Mahayana practices such as boundless love, compassion, and bodhicitta. However, even the texts that explicitly explain the method side implicitly point toward developing the correct view of emptiness. Just as all the great rivers and little streams in the world—whether flowing from the east, west, north, or south—eventually reach the ocean, all the Buddhist scriptures—no matter what their subject and whether they are directed to practitioners of the lower, intermediate, or great spiritual scope—lead directly or indirectly to a realization of emptiness. The key point is that only through clearly understanding emptiness will we remove the root of cyclic existence, ignorance. Until we have a direct realization of reality, we cannot destroy the darkness of ignorance. Understanding śūnyatā is the light that makes the darkness disappear completely. Pure wisdom will not arise by merely developing the single-pointed mind that is śamatha. For this reason we should search without hesitation for the special wisdom that understands reality, the meaning of selflessness. Kamalaśīla’s second Stages of Meditation says:

When you have achieved śamatha, you should cultivate vipaśyanā. You should think, “All Buddha’s teachings were excellently taught. Whether directly or indirectly elucidating reality, they incline toward it. If I understand reality, it will remove all the tangled nets of wrong views, just as the light of dawn eliminates the darkness. Śamatha alone will not produce pure wisdom nor clear away the mental obstructions. However, if I use understanding to meditate correctly on reality, I will generate pure wisdom and realize reality. Only through this wisdom will I completely abandon the obstructions. Since that is so, I must abide in śamatha and use understanding to thoroughly search for reality. Thus I should not be satisfied with mere śamatha.” You may ask, “What is reality?” Ultimately all things are empty of a self of persons and a self of phenomena.

Being entangled in nets of wrong views, especially the egotistic view, gives rise to many wrong perceptions, such as considering what is impure to be pure, what is in the nature of suffering to be blissful, what is impermanent to be permanent, and what is selfless to have a self. These nets of wrong views are cut away by the special insight that realizes emptiness. A yogi must understand that all phenomena—whether external or internal, subject or object—do not exist ultimately. They are free of ultimate existence as a person or as a phenomenon. They exist relatively or dependently. Ultimate reality, the emptiness of existing ultimately, is known by the sixth perfection: the perfection of wisdom. The other five perfections, including meditative concentration, cannot directly realize emptiness. Those perfections are blind; wisdom alone sees the truth. So we must not confuse mere meditative concentration with perfect wisdom. We must develop special insight itself. Eventually we must actualize the union of śamatha and supreme vipaśyanā. In Basic Path to Awakening, Tsongkhapa says:

I do not see the ability to cut the root of cyclic existence
Merely with single-pointed concentration;
Yet no matter how much you analyze using wisdom without śamatha,
You will not get rid of the mental afflictions.

The wisdom reflecting deeply on the meaning of reality,
Having mounted the horse of unwavering śamatha,
Destroys all the objects of grasping at the extremes
With the sharp sword of reasoning of the Middle Way
free from extremes.

Through the vast wisdom of correct analysis,
The vipaśyanā realizing reality flourishes.

Right now we have erroneous perceptions as well as wrong views and an incorrect understanding of reality. We fall to one extreme or the other continuously. The logical methods of the Middle Way establish a view of emptiness that is free from the extremes of nihilism and eternalism. Nāgārjuna uses reasoning to establish the correct view in all twenty-seven chapters of Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way (Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā). To prove the correct view of emptiness, he presents many different arguments from many points of view, such as time, agent, and action. By properly examining the object of inquiry in this way, our wisdom gradually increases, and we understand that things are not absolutely, independently, or inherently existent. However, this logical understanding of emptiness is not sufficient by itself. We must unite it with meditative concentration. Wisdom alone without śamatha is dry and cannot remove the mental afflictions. So having understood the very depths of reality, we must put this wisdom into practice by conjoining it with the meditation technique of śamatha. In this way we will finally generate a powerful vipaśyanā that can cut the root of cyclic existence. This kind of wisdom is superior insight. In Tsongkhapa’s analogy śamatha is like the horse and vipaśyanā is like the warrior riding it, wielding the weapons of Nāgārjuna’s sharp arguments. Mounted on a horse, a warrior can move very fast, turn in any direction, and manipulate powerful weapons to gain victory over the enemy in battle. Similarly, using the weapons of logical analysis, wisdom rides the obedient and powerful horse of śamatha to destroy the objects of wrong perceiving and wrong conceiving, thereby cutting the root of cyclic existence.

Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma three times. This does not mean that he  taught only three times; it means that he presented three fundamental approaches to understanding reality. In the first turning of the wheel Buddha taught that everything exists in a real sense; he explained the four noble truths, the six realms of rebirth, cause and effect, and so on. In the second turning Buddha presented a doctrine that seems to reject what he taught in the first turning of the wheel. He taught the perfection of wisdom so as to show the empty nature of all phenomena. The teachings in this turning include, for example, the Heart Sutra, which says that form, feeling, discernment, the four noble truths, and even buddhahood do not exist. In the third turning of the wheel Buddha deals with this apparent contradiction. It is said that at Vaiśāli the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara pretended not to understand these ostensibly contradictory teachings. He made a special request to Buddha: “First you taught the four noble truths, cause and effect, and so on, to be real things. Then you taught us that none of them exist. For us this seems to be a great contradiction. However, you are an omniscient being; for you there is surely no contradiction. So please explain to us what you mean, especially with regard to the second set of teachings.” In response to this supplication Buddha taught the Sutra Unraveling the Intended Meaning (Saṃdhi-nirmocana-sūtra). In this sutra Avalokiteśvara asks Buddha:

Bhagavan, through which of the perfections do bodhisattvas behold
the absence of essential nature of phenomena?

In reply Buddha says:

Avalokiteśvara, they behold this through the perfection of wisdom.

Similarly, in the Sutra of Cultivating Faith in the Mahayana (Āryamahāyāna-prasāda-prabhāvanā-sūtra), Buddha says, “If you lack the perfection of wisdom, I do not say that you gain release from samsara, no matter what Mahayana practices you do with faith in the great vehicle of bodhisattvas.” In short, wisdom is the most important of the six perfections. No matter how much faith a bodhisattva has in the Mahayana, no matter how sincerely or how much a bodhisattva practices the first five perfections, he or she will not gain release from cyclic existence without wisdom.