The Three Noble Principles


Buddhism has so many methods. How should we practice? The essence of all the schools of Vajrayana Buddhism — Nyingma, Sakya, Gelupa, and Kagyu — is the three noble principles: right aspiration, right merit and right dedication. Sometimes translated as “good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end,” these principles are the crystallization of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Aspiration is the motivation for an act. The most precious, sacred motivation is bodhichitta. Whatever we do—eat, work, engage in sadhana—we must extend bodhichitta. Anything performed with the heart-wish of bodhichitta, even eating lunch, is a form of spiritual practice. You can, for example, extend bodhichitta before going to bed. Think to yourself that by resting well you wish to gain more strength to help others. When you work or study, you can do so with the aspiration that after you have achieved some financial stability, you wish for work to help others achieve liberation. If extended in this way, bodhichitta has the power to transform our worldly acts into sacred acts. When bodhichitta arise within us, whatever we do is sadhana because it is done for the sake of all beings.

If our heart-orientation is in the spirit of bodhichitta, we develop a powerful benevolent energy. By contrast, if we devote ourselves to selfish ends, we develop a powerful negative energy: we can generate conflicts all day long. If you devote yourself to others, your heart will grow so expansive, so powerful that eventually you will be willing to descend into hell to help others. All the merits that kindness can bring will naturally flow from your heart. This can really happen. The wisdom of man is invisible so you do not realize its immense proportions. The wisdom of animals, on the other hand, is limited. This has to do with their karmic load. Ants have a great ability to work as a team, but their wisdom cannot compare to that of humans. Ants do not require spiritual training to develop their wisdom, humans do. That is why you see some people who have far less wisdom than ants! Such people live chaotic lives. They are overwhelmed by the challenges of work and family. They have no idea what they should be doing with their lives.

Ants have far more drive and purpose. If they sense danger, they will move an entire city in a flash. Their teamwork is powerful, but the teamwork of humans with compassionate hearts is even more potent. We have the ability to make the entire world a warm home for all beings. If we use the Dharma to develop our wisdom and compassion, our circle of love will expand until it envelops all. There will be nothing we cannot accept and no one we do not show concern for. By coming to truly understand ourselves, we will understand all human beings. If you cherish your own life, you will cherish the lives of others. If you know your own suffering, you will know the suffering of others. Often remind yourself, “This human birth is the rarest of gifts. As much as possible, I must use it to help others.” If you live like that, your life will be deeply meaningful. As laymen practitioners, you all have jobs and many worldly tasks to attend to. Whenever you do anything, you should do it for the sake of all beings. Never let this motivation out of your heart—that is the real practice of bodhichitta.

Before engaging in sadhana or charitable acts, you should extend bodhichitta according to the formal method. Recite the dedication aloud, then offer water, light incense, meditate, perform one of the Ten Virtuous Deeds, etc. Bring structure to your practice. If engaged in bodhichitta, any form of sadhana can be transformed into the highest level of spiritual practice. When the basis lacks bodhichitta, the motivation of unenlightened man will be fickle. Sadhana performed without bodhichitta may not yield an auspicious result. We need bodhichitta as support. It is one of the foundations of our practice.

3nobleprinciples-2Right aspiration must be followed by “right merit,” which refers to the actual performance of sadhana or any virtuous act. Ideally actions should be performed with “the wisdom of Emptiness,” but until one reaches this level, apply awareness, concentration and the spirit of bodhichitta. This is “right action.”

I rejoice and admire your desire to deepen your knowledge of Buddhism. The best students are those who have studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, but never lose their appetite for more information and more review. They say things like, “Each time I hear such-and-such explained, it sinks in deeper.” At the other extreme, there are students who have studied for many years but know nothing of sadhana. They can talk about Buddhism at length, but they don’t even know how to do the Ngondro preliminary practices. I ask them, “How do you meditate? What do you feel when you meditate? What do you feel during good meditation and during bad meditation? What are the seven posture points?” They can’t answer any of these questions. Studying without practicing does not help us control negative emotions, and therefore does not move us closer to liberation.

Students who have not yet completed the Ngondro preliminaries should read less and practice more. Without practice, you can’t tame your mind. It doesn’t do any good to recite mantras if your head is full of random thoughts. If you do the Ngondro practices for just one day and are able to meet the standard, that is enough. If you perform them for a long time, but you can’t meet the standard, you have to continue until you get it right. “Meeting the standard” has nothing to do with quantity. Rather, it speaks of the insight you have gained and your degree of internal transformation. After doing sadhana, what is your view of samsara? What are your feelings toward others? How strong is your desire for liberation? What benefit have you derived? What do you think is the ultimate benefit of the Dharma? If you have derived benefits from your practice, you will have confidence in the Dharma and will therefore want to practice more. But some individuals are not at all transformed by their practice. They are like rocks at the bottom of the sea; surrounded by water, but never able to absorb any of it. After a year or two of listening to Dharma talks, receiving empowerment and meeting “living Buddhas”, they have not gained any insight. They are embarrassed to realize that what they thought was sadhana was just going through the motions — what I refer to as “practicing blindly.” Through your practice, you develop a solid foundation. When a major negative emotion arises, what do you use to deal with it? Some Buddhist theory that have you read about, or the state of consciousness that you have achieved when practicing? For the majority of you, your internal state is predominantly characterized by stress. This is due to a lack of wisdom. How do you use Buddhism to increase your level of wisdom? How can you use your wisdom to immediately transform your suffering? You develop these abilities through sadhana. Spiritual practice turns theory into ability. It is your source of internal strength.

The easiest way to explain “right dedication” is to say that it is like calling everyone to dinner. You’ve prepared the meal with your right merit, now with right dedication you yell, “Come and get it!” The standard method is to dedicate the merit of all your virtuous activities — listening to Dharma talks, meditating, performing fish releases, keeping Six Paramitas vows, bearing humiliation, etc — to the aspiration that all beings will be released from suffering as soon as possible. The most sacred dedication is to employ the wisdom of Emptiness. Most of you are not yet capable of this, so you can use the standard method, which is sacred as well.

The three noble principles are the essence of the 84,000 Dharma methods of Buddhism. If you constantly employ these principles to your actions, whether you are a monk or a layman, you are sure to achieve realization. If you do not employ these principles, no matter how hard you practice you will not achieve consciousness. Today I’ve given you a simple, clear explanation of the three noble principles. You can now use them in your daily life and practice. If I were to teach you all sorts of methods, you would just get confused and in the end you wouldn’t be able to apply what I have described… Now, you know how to apply these principles. If you really do so, it will be of immense benefit to you. This is what I want to share with you today.

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