Elevate Difference

The Three Principal Aspects of the Path

Buddhist philosophy seems simple only until we attempt to implement the teachings; as any practitioner quickly realizes, as soon as we are faced with the real world, even the straightest path to enlightenment is riddled with potholes and roadblocks, not to mention those confusing road signs that seem designed to discourage us wholly from the pursuit of compassion. Emptying our minds, sitting motionless in excruciating positions, meditating on seemingly nonsensical koans—if we survive all that, we still have to maintain compassion for the jerk who cuts us off in traffic and for the rude plumber who tracks mud all over our house.

It’s a rocky road for anyone to traverse, but the going is made easier by masters like Geshe Sonam Rinchen who elucidate the wisdom and inspire us on our journey. In the introduction to this beautifully produced volume, Rinchen assures us that we can achieve “an inner transformation if we approach [the teachings] in a constructive way by avoiding three faults and fostering six attitudes.” These faults and attitudes are neatly explained within the introduction, allowing readers to prepare and remain open to the commentary that follows.

This volume, The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, is based upon an oral teaching given by Geshe Sonam Rinchen regarding the brief but insightful teaching of Je Tsongkhapa. Born in Tibet in the fourteenth century, Tsongkhapa is surrounded by legends of mystical activity and intellectual prowess. It is said that he experienced visions of the master Manjushri through which he was guided for the rest of his life. Tsongkhapa’s The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, inspired by Manjushri, is a summation of the traditional practices leading to enlightenment.

One might assume that such a work is complete and that devoted aspirants could find full wisdom through Tsongkhapa’s words. Like all apparently simple instruction, however, this summation leads to even more questions and confusion. While students should look to the source for themselves, teachers such as Geshe Sonam Rinchen do us an honor by expounding upon what others have recognized and experienced, and by sharing their own understanding of those teachings. Tsongkhapa’s root teaching is included at the end of Rinchen’s book, but I recommend to readers that they turn first to that brief summation and return to the beginning of The Three Principal Aspects of the Path after considering Tsongkhapa’s original work.

Rinchen’s attentive exploration touches on specific areas within the text that may be overlooked even by those who are deeply familiar with it. Beginning in his prologue, Rinchen addresses at length the importance of Tsongkhapa’s opening statement, “Homage to the venerable and holy teachers!” Especially in the Western world where we put great value on individual achievement, self-help, and do-it-yourself, the treasure of a human teacher is often ignored. Rinchen insists, “No one has ever gained, nor will ever gain, a state of high realization without guidance from a spiritual teacher.” He then provides us with a list of the ten most desirable qualities to be found in a teacher, drawn from Maitreya’s Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras.

As Rinchen moves through the remainder of Tsongkhapa’s work, addressing the wish for freedom, altruistic intention, and correct view, his approach is both humble and firm. Though Tsongkhapa’s three principal paths teaching contains “quintessential Buddhist practices” and is a point of reference in many talks, Geshe Rinchen’s unique and clear approach to The Three Principal Aspects of the Path is accessible for beginners while also providing thoughtful advancement for more experienced students.

Written by: Deborah Adams, October 25th 2010