An Introduction to the Stages of the Path Teachings

A little over a thousand years ago, a king in Tibet saw the decline of Buddhism in his homeland, and decided to invite a great scholar from India, by the name of Atisha, to his country…


When Atisha arrived in Tibet, he saw that people were practicing advanced teachings without a foundation in ethics; that different schools of thought were critical of each other, each believing that they alone had the truth; he saw how tantra was being misunderstood and misused, and how some teachings that were popular at the time were not in line with what the Buddha and the realized sages that followed him had taught.

Out of his compassion and wisdom Atisha met the Tibetans right where the were. He taught them fundamental practice of taking refuge so often that he came to be called by some ‘the refuge lama’, and when asked for a simple teaching that people could easily understand, Atisha composed a text he called ‘A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment’. This was the prototype of what has come to be known as the Lam Rim, or the Stages of the Path teachings.

This genre shows us the entire path at once, from beginning to end. It’s like having a map for the entire journey. It starts from where we are, saying up front that we all have Buddha Nature, which is the potential for enlightenment; and that we now have this precious human life, which is subject to birth and death, and difficult emotions, such as loneliness, fear and depression; it introduces the Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, refuge and ethics, and a basic practice of meditation, and then proceeds to teachings on liberation, great compassion, and enlightenment.

It shows the function of all the different Buddhist teachings, how they reinforce each other, and how they are without contradiction.

I think we are in a similar situation here as Atisha found when he went to Tibet. There is such an array of teachings in the US in the 21st century, and people often pick and choose from whatever is at hand. Sometimes the practices work for them, and often not. As in Atisha’s time, there are made up teachings being sold, that have no basis in Buddhism; there is sectarian arrogance, close mindedness, and what are only partial paths being taught – and all this at a time when there is so much suffering, and when our world and our people are in crisis.

Just as in Atisha’s time, I see that people are practicing sitting meditation, but without much guidance; I hear about ideals of universal love and compassion, without the steps laid out; we hear about basic ethics disregarded, even by teachers, let alone their students; and the Buddhist wisdom teachings pushed to the side, or else not understood. The Lam Rim is a remedy for all that.

It’s said in this tradition, that in each generation, the children will be richer than their parents – meaning that the main points of the teachings have become easier to see. We now have the light, energy and inspiration of teachers such as Gampopa and Je Tsong Khapa to guide us. Realized practitioners such as the Dalai Lama have given commentaries on their teachings, and these are widely available.

What are called ‘root texts’ are summaries of teachings, that traditionally have been celebrated, memorized and commented on by teachers. Back before there were many books, this was the easiest way to store and transmit ideas. In successive generations, even commentaries were put to memory, debated, added to and passed down, and we are heirs to these teachings. Root texts and commentaries, as well as our own reflections and insights complement each other. We read and study, listen to teachings, and practice whatever we need, the step that is right in front of us. Then when we return to the original outline, the meaning is all there for us.

One of the basic ideas in the Stages of the Path is that everything rises from causes – including the decision to take up a spiritual path, to follow a teacher, to keep good ethics, to seek liberation, or enlightenment as the best way to help others. This idea – of watering the roots of the kind of life we want for ourselves proves itself again and again.

The Stages of the Path teachings help us to begin our spiritual practice; and once we’ve started, they help us to continue, with clarity and vigor; and they lead to the fulfillment of accomplishing the teachings for ourselves and all others.

Whenever I’m lacking motivation, or when I’m unsure of what to practice, I rely on these teachings. They are greatly empowering, and they clarify what is most important for me at any time. I also try to remember that people study the Lam Rim their whole lives, and are enriched by it, and so I take the long view.

Now, personally, I don’t think it’s important whether people ally themselves with one Buddhist tradition or lineage or another. What matters to me is that they have an understanding of teachings that can help them throughout their lives, free them from confusion and suffering, and enable them to benefit others in every needful way. We learn so many useless things over the course of our lives, that at least this much should be known.

I’ve written my own summary of the these teachings, and I reflect often on the short texts bequeathed to us by the great saint, Je Tsong Khapa, in particular those called The Three Principle Aspects of the Path, and Lines of Experience.

May we all find a complete path that works for us,
and leads us to freedom from samsara,
the endless round

May we then share the benefits of our practice
with all of our precious children,
with our family and friends,
with animals, and with all beings

This is the introduction to The Stages of the Path Teachings – A Selection of Texts