The Stages of the Path to Enlightenment

The purpose of this website is to present the stages of the Buddhist path to enlightenment or awakening, based on the lamrim genre.

Lamrim is a Tibetan Buddhist textual form that presents the stages in the path to enlightenment as taught by the Buddha.

In his seminal text, A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, the great Indian pandit and yogi, Atisha Dipamkara Shrijnana (982–1054 AD) extracted the essence of all 84,000 teachings of the Buddha and organized them into clear steps, known as the lam-rim, or stages of the path to enlightenment.

Atisha’s Lamrim and the Four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Following Atisha’s arrival in Tibet and composition of the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, each of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism in some way adopted the pattern and structure of the stages of the path teachings.

In the Nyingma tradition (established in the 8th century), Longchenpa’s Mind at Ease presents the path in a way that follows the basic structure of Atisha’s approach.

Similarly, in the Kagyu tradition (established in the 11th century), Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation presents the basic structure of the path in a manner just like what Atisha lays out.

The same is true in the Sakya tradition (established in the 11th century). Sakya Pandita’s Clear Elucidation of the Buddha’s Intent can be seen as a fusion of the stages of the path teachings with mind training (lojong) teachings.

Finally, in the fourth main school of Tibetan Buddhism, Gelugpa (established in the 14th century), Tsongkhapa wrote the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment.

Sometimes slightly different sequences are adopted, but basically in all of these traditions the stages of the path are very similar. For example, the Jewel Ornament of Liberation speaks of turning one’s mind away from four things. If you look at these four turnings of mind, they echo teachings in the stages of the path tradition.

(Source: H.H. the Dalai Lama. From Here to Enlightenment (p. 20). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.)

This website includes three works that are expositions of the stages of Buddhist practice by three Tibetan luminaries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: (1) Geshé Dölpa, (2) Gampopa, and (3) Sakya Paṇḍita.

Each text explains how to ascend the bodhisattva’s path of practice in a graduated progression, from the level of a beginner up to the final awakening of supreme buddhahood.

While Geshé Dölpa was an early master of the Kadam school and Gampopa and Sakya Pandita were founding masters of the Kagyü and Sakya traditions, respectively, the later two authors owed a significant debt to the Kadam school’s spiritual and literary legacy.

All three manuals belong, in fact, to Kadam genres of literature: the first can be classified as an exposition of the “stages of the path,” or lamrim (lam rim), while the second and third are manuals of the “stages of the doctrine,” or tenrim (bstan rim), in the tradition of the Kadam monastery of Sangphu Neuthok.

The lamrim tradition in Tibet flourished most famously in the Geluk school.

Basic Content of the Stages Genres

Both the lamrim and tenrim genres aim at leading students to transform their outlook and lives by internalizing a series of ascending spiritual truths.

Both kinds of manuals typically lead students through a series of preparatory reflections, beginning with the preciousness of their human birth and then moving on to its precariousness—the contemplation of mortality turning students’ minds away from the things of this life.

Reflecting on the consequences of harmful deeds that will be experienced at the time of death and in the life to come inspires a strong desire to ensure that one’s future birth is in a pleasant realm.

Then, reflecting on the drawbacks of life in all realms in the wheel of existence (samsara), even human and divine ones, inspires students to desire liberation (nirvana).

Yet personal liberation for oneself alone is also not a perfectly satisfactory solution. All three manuals accordingly aim to motivate students to strive compassionately for the highest spiritual goal—the perfect awakening of a buddha in order to benefit all living creatures.

Such altruistic aspirations and practices are characteristic of the bodhisattva, and the bodhisattva practices leading to buddhahood are the main subject of all three texts, practices for developing such qualities as universal compassion and the highest insight into the nature of reality.

Tenrim treatises in particular typically end with a chapter extolling the virtues of a buddha’s awakening, the highest destination on the path.

Most stages texts follow this basic framework, but to these basic elements have been added other emphases and topics over the years. Sakya Pandita’s text on this website, for instance, addresses the preparatory themes listed above more indirectly because he begins addressing the path of the bodhisattva right from the outset.

According to the abilities of both teacher and intended students, the explanations in a given lamrim or tenrim treatise can be simple or complex, with more or fewer quotations and dialectical discussions.

The preliminary contemplations described above, parallel the four thoughts that turn the mind, four contemplations that inspire a person to reject worldly life and pursue spiritual practice: the reflections on

(1) the difficulty of finding a well-endowed human existence and on

(2) the impermanence of life (which together turn the mind away from this life and toward future lives); and the reflections on

(3) the defects of cyclic existence and on

(4) the workings of karmic causality (which together induce the mind to reject samsara and desire liberation).

The Distinction between Lamrim and Tenrim

The term lamrim is sometimes used loosely to refer to any graded exposition of the path, and in such cases it encompasses tenrim texts as well.

When the term lamrim is understood as a genre more restrictively, however—as it is with Geshé Dölpa’s Blue Compendium—it refers to a work that presents the key “stages” (rim pa) of the spiritual “path” (lam) through the special pedagogic device of the three spiritual capacities, ending with a brief mention of the superior efficacy of tantric methods.

The three spiritual capacities are determined by the practitioner’s motivation.

Practitioners of the lowest capacity pursue spiritual activities out of a desire for rebirth in the higher, happier realms in the next lifetime—as a god (deva) or at the very least in a good human family.

Medium-capacity beings are driven by the wish to escape cyclic existence altogether and achieve nirvana’s cessation of suffering.

Finally, beings with the highest capacity strive not for their own welfare but for the happiness of all sentient beings—that is, they have the motivation of a bodhisattva.

Tenrim works also largely descend from Atiśa, and he even composed a short treatise of this type himself, the Sādhana for Practicing the Mahayana Path.

Unlike most lamrim works, tenrim texts do not frame their presentation around the three spiritual capacities, although they may certainly mention these three types of beings.

Tenrim texts are Buddhist manuals that expound, through a series of doctrinal and practical topics, the “stages” (rim pa) of the Mahayana “doctrine” (bstan pa).

A Final Note: While the Mahayana “mind training” (lojong) instructions are considered as a genre in their own right, topically they covers much of the same ground as the lamrim and tenrim treatises.

Concluding Comments

We can only marvel at how skillfully the Tibetan works of the stages genre have synthesized the teachings of the Buddha, as well as those of the great Indian Mahayana teachers, and presented them within a coherent framework that can be practiced by a single spiritual aspirant seeking to travel from the beginner’s stage to the final awakening of the buddha.

Inspired by Atiśa’s seminal text Lamp for the Path to Awakening, the step-by-step instructions developed in these Tibetan texts continue to guide and elevate the attentive reader and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism even today. Imbued by their authors with so much insight and helpful instruction, may we come to appreciate the richness of the Tibetan tradition and its creative synthesis of the vast corpus of classical Indian Buddhist teachings.

Source: Adapted from Dolpa. Stages of the Buddha’s Teachings: Three Key Texts (Library of Tibetan Classics Book 10) (pp. 1-4). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

May the lamrim and tenrim information on this website be of personal inspiration to all who visit the site.

Lamrim is what you should focus on your whole life, even while you are doing your job. You should keep your mind in this. It is the most meaningful, most profound practice, doing each action with the mind in bodhicitta. This should be your practice; this is what you should try to accomplish in life.
(Lama Zopa Rinpoche)