A Lamp Illuminating the Essential Meaning of the Three Principal Aspects of the Path 

Image Courtesy: FPMT  

– Karma Sichoe, MATTIP student from Nepal

A Lamp Illuminating the Essential Meaning of the Three Principal Aspects of the Path (lam gyi gtso bo rnam gsum gyi don ‘grel gsal b’i sgron me zhes bya ba bzhugs so) written by Chone Lama Drakpa Shedrub (co ne bla ma grags pa bshad sgrub, 1675- 1748) is a commentary on the 

Three Principal Aspects of the Path (lam gyi gtso bo rnam gsum) by Lama Tsongkhapa (Tsongkhapa blo bzang grags pa 1357-1419), founder of Gelukpa tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. The characteristic Gelukpa system of the path to awakening is referred to as lamrim (stages of the path). Tsong Khapa’s work such as The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path and The Three Principal Aspects of the Path summarizes lamrim. He divides the Buddhist path into three primary features: 1) Renunciation (Tib. nges ‘byung) 2) Bodhicitta (Tib. byang chub sems) 3) Emptiness (Tib. stong nyid.)  

The commentary clearly expounds the meaning of each aspect, the factors required for cultivating an experience of each of them, and the measure of having achieved success in them.  

                 Chone Lama Drakpa Shedrub was an 18th century Gelukpa scholar, a prolific commentator and writer. At the end of his life his writings consisted of eleven volumes and contained commentaries on Madhyamika, Abhisamayālaṃkāra, Vinaya, Abhidharma, Pramāṇa, as well as on many practices belonging to the four classes of tantra.1  


In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the path to complete awakening for the benefit of all sentient beings begins by generating renunciation first, followed by bodhicitta and then wisdom which realizes emptiness. Generating renunciation is considered the ground for all the spiritual practices. The Three Principal Aspects of the Path by Lama Tsongkhapa explains why one begins with renunciation:  

Without pure renunciation, 

An end to attraction for the pleasures of cyclic existence is unattainable. 

The craving for existence also binds beings 

Thus, from the outset, seek renunciation.2  

The practice on generating renunciation sets the basis for the path to enlightenment by helping us not to give rise to attachment towards small pleasures. In the commentary, Drakpa Shedrub explains the foundational topics such as impermanence (Tib. mi rtag pa), defects of saṁsāra (Tib.‘khor b’i nyes dmigs), the principle of cause and effect (Tib. rgyu ‘bras), the difficulty of finding the freedoms and endowments (Tib. dal ‘byor rnyed dka’ ba)  


In The Three Principal Aspects of the Path Lama Tsongkhapa explains: 

However, renunciation, if not tempered by a pure 

mind of bodhicitta 

Will not bring forth the perfect bliss 

Of unsurpassed Enlightenment 

Therefore, the wise ones generate the excellent 

mind of bodhicitta.  

The essense of the cultivation of bodhicitta is the desire to achieve perfect, complete enlightenment for benefit of others. Speaking of bodhicitta, according to Geshe Dorji Damdul in his teachings, he mentioned, “Invoking the experience of bodhicitta takes longer than experiencing emptiness.”3 In Tsongkhapa’s view, training in wisdom is not dissociated from cultivating of compassion; rather, both are intimately linked, and each fortifies and enhances the other.4 Bodhicitta is the ripening path whereas emptiness is the liberating path. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in his book Transforming the Mind states that when bodhicitta is supported by insight into emptiness, and particularly by the direct realization of emptiness, one is said to have attained the two dimensions of bodhicitta which are known as conventional and ultimate bodhicitta5 (Tib. kun rdzob byang chub sems, don dam byang chub sems). Saraha says in his Dohās:  

Without compassion, the view of emptiness 

Will never lead you to the sublime path. 

Yet, meditating solely on compassion, you remain 

Within saṁsāra; so how could you be free?  

But he who comes to possess both of these  

Will neither in saṁsāra nor in nirvāṇa dwell.6  

In Chone Drakpa Shedrub’s commentary, he explains the two main methods for generating  

Bodhicitta. These two are Equalizing and Exchanging self for others (Tib. bdag gzhan mnyam  

brje) and the Seven-fold cause and effect method (Tib. rgyu ‘bras man ngag bdun).  

The importance of generating the wish to benefit others are mentioned in many sutras. The Sūtra  

that Perfectly Encapsulates the Dharma says:  

Let those who desire Buddhahood not train in many Dharmas but only one. 

Which one? Great Compassion 

Those with great compassion possess all the Buddha’s teaching as  

If it were in the palm of their hand.7  

Generating bodhicitta is the source of benefit for both oneself and others, as it brings us closer to  

Buddhahood, by burning away the fuel for the obscurations to omniscience. It is also the source  

of limitless merits, the basis for all the bodhisattva training. The teachings on the practice of  

loving-kindness and compassion are the remedy to being attached to the pleasures of peace. 

There is nothing more effective than compassion for purifying us of negative actions  

and obscurations.8 The story of Arya Asaṅga’s vision of Buddha Maitreya serves as an example.  

After generating great compassion towards a wounded dog, Arya Asaṅga’s obscurations were  

purified, enabling him to see Buddha Maitreya. 


In The Three Principal Aspects of the Path Lama Tsongkhapa explains:  

Although you train in renunciation and the mind of Bodhicitta,  

Without wisdom that realises the ultimate reality, 

You cannot cut the root of cyclic existence. 

Therefore, strive to understand dependent arising.  

All Buddhists accept dependent origination9 (Tib. rten ‘brel, Skt. pratītyasamutpāda). There are three levels of dependent origination — 1) causal dependence, 2) whole’s dependence on it’s parts, and 3) dependence on mere mental designation. Mādhyamikas are the only Buddhists who accept the dependence on mere mental designation. It is with respect to this understanding that all philosophical debates among various traditions begin.  

In the commentary, Drakpa Shedrub explains 1) How should one understand the view (Tib. lta ba ‘tshol dgos tshul) 2) Understanding emptiness as dependent arising (stong ba rten ‘brel gyi don du rtogs pa) 3) The inseparability of emptiness and appearance (Tib. snang stong ngobo tha dad du ‘dzin mi rigs pa) 4) What marks the end of analysis of the view (Tib. lta b’i dpyd pa rdzogs tshad) 5) Distinctive feature of the Prasanghika’s view (Tib. thal ‘gyur b’i lta b’i khyad chos) 6) Subsidiary topics.  

One distinctive assertion of the Prasanghika school of thought is that, they assert nothing exist intrinsically (Tib. bden par ma sgrub pa). The gelukpas known for following the Prasanghika school of thought equates emptiness and the concept of dependent arising as the two sides of the same coin, the realization of which is the antidote to the subtle self-grasping ignorance (Tib. bdag ‘dzin phra mo).   

The practice on generating renunciation sets the basis for the path to enlightenment by helping us not to give rise to attachment towards small pleasures. The practices on generating an awakening mind challenges our old habits and thinking pattern and help counteract the self-cherishing attitude (Tib. rang gces ‘dzin). And finally, the wisdom of emptiness helps counteract our subtle self-grasping ignorance (Tib. bdag ‘dzin phra mo). In this way, by taking gradual steps, the practitioner will be purified of all the obscurations and will be able to manifest the true nature of the mind.  

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