Three Principal Paths

In Monday’s post, there was a brief reference to the concept of The Three Principal Aspects to the Path, developed by Tsongkhapa. I thought I would go over them briefly.

Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), an important Tibetan philosopher, was said to have composed 10, 000 pages of commentary on the Buddha-dharma. He also founded the Geglug order, the pre-eminent school in Tibet and the one headed by the Dalai Lama. The Three Principal Aspects of the Path is the poem he composed in which he intended to condense his knowledge of Buddhist doctrine into fourteen verses.

Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) divides the Path into sutra, the Mahayana “scriptures”, and tantra, the meditation and associative practices of Vajrayana. Tsongkhapa’s poem forms the doctrinal basis for the union of sutra and tantra in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Three Principal Aspects of the Path are:

Renunciation –

Without pure renunciation, there is no way to quench
The constant thirst for pleasure in the ocean of life,
And since all living beings are bound by their craving,
You must begin by seeking renunciation.  3

Bodhicitta (Thought of Awakening) –

And yet, if renunciation is embraced,
If it is not accompanied by the pure motivation of bodhicitta,
It will not produce the mind of awakening,
Thus, the wise generate supreme bodhicitta.  6

Correct View of Emptiness –

While you may master renunciation and bodhicitta,
Without wisdom of the true nature of reality,
You cannot cut the root of conditioned existence,
Therefore, make an effort to penetrate the heart of dependent arising.  9

Renunciation, usually thought of in terms of renouncing the material world, is more about letting go of our attachment to material things. Renunciation means to change our way of thinking. I once heard the Dalai Lama say, “True renunciation is a state of mind. It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.”

In regards to a correct view of emptiness is concerned, Nagarjuna said, “Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.” Misunderstanding emptiness may not be quite as dangerous as mishandling a snake, nonetheless misunderstanding seriously hinders insight. To understand emptiness correctly, we must first cultivate a deep appreciation for the interdependency of all things.

While the Three Principal Aspects of the Path is a teaching for tantric practice (in a textual form known as lamrim), they really apply to the entire Mahayana or Buddhist path. The important point for those of us who regularly engage in the practice of Buddhism is that it is crucial to develop a holistic approach. That means to embrace all the various aspects of the path, not just practice bits and pieces of it; none of these elements stand-alone. There is no compassion with emptiness, and without emptiness, there is no real transformation of our mind, and so on.

When, in this way, you have well comprehended
These essential points of the three principal aspects of the path,
Withdraw, dear child, to strengthen your effort,
And quickly accomplish the ultimate and lasting aim.  14


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