The Buddha taught that the root of everything we perceive and experience is the mind. For this reason, the way of the Buddha is that one must turn one’s attention inward, toward the mind itself. It is important that we examine our own minds and interact with the teachings when we engage with the buddhadharma. If we do not do so and simply receive the teachings passively, then although they will create positive impressions in our minds, they will not enable us to attain enlightenment in one lifetime or within a relatively short number of lives.

When we direct our attention inward and look at our mind, we find that there are three types of thoughts that form, which may be classed as positive, neutral, and negative. We all have positive thoughts, such as love and compassion, patience, and so on, all of which are positive thoughts related to virtuous qualities. The buddhadharma teaches practitioners to also cultivate thoughts related to the Buddhist teachings. What are these positive thoughts that are so important for practitioners? According to the dharma, we have the potential for giving rise to three essential positive mental attitudes, which are faith, the thought of renun­ciation, and bodhicitta (the mind of enlightenment).

Related: How Do We Learn the Dharma? 

In addition to positive thoughts, we have all of the ordinary, neutral thoughts related to everyday pursuits such as eating, sleeping, coming and going, and conducting our daily lives. There are also two general types of neutral mental states: an unconscious state without any mental activity and a conscious state endowed with mental activity. Likewise, each of us has negative thoughts, and these can all be included within three categories of thoughts related to the three central psychological poisons that afflict the mind: anger, attachment, and delusion. Negative thoughts are those that stem from these three categories of afflictive emotions. The first category includes aversion, aggression, and anger; the second includes craving, desire, and attachment; and the third includes stupidity, ignorance, and delusion.

When listening to and learning buddhadharma, it is very important that we engage the teachings on the basis of the three positive mental attitudes. Otherwise, if we listen to dharma teachings with an indifferent, neutral state of mind, the meaning of the dharma will not be able to enter and penetrate our mind. Also if we listen with a distracted mind, we will not be able to hear and receive the teachings, so it is very important to practice attentive mindfulness when listening to the dharma.

It should be clear that if we listen to the teachings with a negative mental attitude, our frame of mind will not be in accord with the dharma. In such a case, receiving teachings can even create negative karma rather than posi­tive, since negative karma will be the outcome of negative states of mind. Thus it is explained in the buddhadharma that all of our negative thoughts and actions should be abandoned, that all of our neutral thoughts should be transformed into something positive and meaningful, and that only posi­tive attitudes and intentions are to be adopted.

For practitioners, this means that we should try to cultivate the three kinds of positive thoughts. As mentioned, these are first, faith and devotion toward the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, the three jewels. Second, we grow in the thought of renunciation by seeing the defects of samsara, the faults of worldly existence. Third, we cultivate positive thoughts related to bodhi­citta. To give rise to the thought of bodhicitta, we develop the aspiration to establish all beings in a state in which they are free from any suffering and have reached the level of perfect Buddha­hood. This is what is also known in the buddhadharma as the thought of compassion.

In order to listen to and properly receive the dharma teachings, these three positive thoughts and intentions are essential. If we cultivate the three positive attitudes well, then the dharma will enter and merge with our mind; so it is fundamental to cultivate and maintain the three thoughts while listening to and learning the teachings.

How are we to understand the three positive mental attitudes necessary for a dharma practitioner? To begin with, the gateways to the dharma are faith and renunciation. In general, the sutra teachings speak of four types of faith: inspired faith, aspiring faith, confident faith, and irreversible faith. The Buddha said in the Lalitavistara Sutra (Sutra of the Vast Display) that it is impossible to truly enter the path of dharma with­out faith and devotion. For example, without faith the way is blocked for us as we will not be able to trust in the teachings. Thus it is very important that we listen to the dharma with an open heart filled with faith and devotion.

For example, the Bhadrakalpika Sutra (Sutra of the Fortunate Aeon), which relates the 12 deeds of the life of the Buddha, begins with the teachings on the precious wheel of faith. The reason faith is referred to as a precious wheel is because in the ancient scriptures of the Vedas, there is a legend about a universal ruler who through his great merit is endowed with the seven precious royal possessions. One of these seven possessions is a precious golden magical wheel, which always spontaneously proceeds ahead of the universal ruler wherever he advances in order to prepare the way for him. Due to the presence of the precious wheel, wherever the universal ruler goes, people automatically fall under his power, and he naturally gains mastery over every place.

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Similarly, when the Buddha taught, he always began his teachings by introducing the precious wheel of faith, which opens the way to the dharma teachings like the precious wheel of a universal ruler. Faith is to have trust and confidence in the dharma, and without this trust we cannot penetrate the profound depth of the teachings. If we place vegetables in front of dogs, they will normally show little interest in eating them. Likewise, if we lack faith and have little interest in the dharma, we won’t partake of the teach­ings and enter the path.

When we speak of the second of the three positive mental attitudes, the thought of renunciation, we need to begin by gaining a definite understand­ing of the nature of suffering in the three realms of samsara. In important sutras such as the Saddharma-nusmitryu-pastana Sutra (Supreme Dharma of the Application of Mindfulness Sutra), the Karma Shataka Sutra (The Sutra of One Hundred Karmas), and others, the main theme is renunciation.

The Tibetan term for renunciation is ngeparjungwa, which literally means “certainty of release.” Ngepar is short for ngepar shepa, meaning “to have certain, decisive knowledge from within”; in this case, it refers to having certainty that the nature of worldly existence is suffering. In addition to this certainty, there is the heartfelt wish to be released from this suffering. One must gain confidence in the fact that the nature of cyclic existence in samsara is suffering, together with having the powerful wish and intention to be free of this suffering: This is what is known as the thought of renunciation.

The third of the three positive mental attitudes is bodhicitta, which especially concerns our motivation for listen­ing to and learning the buddhadharma teachings. In regard to motivation, there are two general kinds of impure, flawed motivations for listening to the dharma. The first of these is listening in order to be protected from fear or harm, such as, for example, listening to the dharma in order to receive safe haven from punishment and retribution. The second is listening to and learning the dharma for material gain such as money, food, clothing, and possessions.

Most importantly, there are the three levels of positive motivation one may give rise to in order to hear and receive the dharma teachings, which are the lesser, middling, and superior motivation. The lesser motivation is wishing to obtain higher rebirths in the worldly realms of gods and men and to escape the suffering of the lower realms. The middling motivation is aspiring to attain the level of an arhat [enlightened one] solely for one’s own benefit. The superior motivation is to listen to the teachings with the bodhicitta motiva­tion, the intention to bring all beings to the level of Buddhahood. Thus we should listen to the buddhadharma while generating the great motivation and expansive attitude of bodhicitta.

Bodhicitta has two aspects, the first of which consists of wishing that all beings as vast as space may be free from suffering and from the causes and effects of suffering. This is known as the compassion aspect of bodhicitta. Second, bodhicitta includes the wish that all beings may be established at the level of perfect enlightenment, that they may all experience the supreme happiness of enlightenment. This is known as the lovingkindness aspect of bodhicitta. So in essence, bodhicitta is endowed with both compassion and love. This is the state of mind in which we listen to dharma teachings, according to the Mahayana Buddhist sutra tradition.

Bodhicitta also has two principal facets, the relative and the ultimate. As just mentioned, relative bodhicitta is having the wish to liberate all beings from the suffering of worldly existence, as well as actually engaging in prac­tice for this same purpose. These are the two aspects of relative bodhicitta, known as the bodhicitta of aspiration and the bodhicitta of application. Then we speak of ultimate bodhicitta, which is a selfless state beyond all conceptual views. Ultimate bodhicitta is uncontrived. It is the natural state of emptiness, the true nature of mind. In brief, whenever we listen to and contemplate dharma teachings we should keep these three positive thoughts of faith, renunciation, and bodhicitta at the forefront of our mind. This will allow the dharma to ultimately penetrate our heart.

From The Fearless Lion’s Roar by Nyoshul Khenpo Jamyang Dorje, translated by David Christenson. © 2015 Shambhala Publications, Inc.

[This story was first published in 2015