Adapting Tibetan Buddhism’s Lamrim Stages of The Path for a Modern Secular Audience

Tibetan monks on the beach at Coney Island Brooklyn by Eric Gross

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The time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion.”

— The Dalai Lama. Beyond Religion, 2011

A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment adapts the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of analytical meditation for secular people interested in meditating for personal psychological development. It’s a path that incorporates the active thought and storytelling of analytical meditation with critical analysis.

The gradual path to enlightenment, known in Tibetan as the lamrim, is a specific order of the Buddha’s teachings. The lamrim demonstrates how all of the Buddhist teachings connect as a whole and is presented as a set of personal instructions for our progressive development through self-discipline, meditation, and compassion.

While many lamrim topics require little or no modification for a secular audience, the traditional approach to some topics relies upon metaphysical concepts that can’t be validated with current science, such as the existence of past and future lives or realms outside our universe.

Based on our experience leading beginning meditations students, we found that a shift in emphasis to a more psychological approach that is coherent with modern science provides enormous benefit to students who would otherwise abandon the path as foreign to their worldview.

This secular approach to ethics and meditation is practical, scientific, and critical. It’s an approach His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself has written about repeatedly in books like Beyond Religion, Ethics for a New Millennium, and The Universe in A Single Atom.

“Give up religion, give up Buddhism. Go beyond Buddhism. Put the essential aspect of the philosophy into scientific language.”

— Lama Thubten Yeshe, 1983

In order to be fully transparent, we share this outline summary of the ways we have shift emphasis or omit topics in order to adapt the lamrim to a secular audience.

For newcomers, if you find yourself benefitting and intrigued by this path, we encourage you to eventually seek out the original authoritative sources for the lamrim teachings, in order to learn from the original texts composed by Atisha Dipamkara and Lama Tsongkhapa. Or to learn from the lamrim approaches of living masters like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Khen Rinpoche, Geshe Tashi Tsering, Venerable Sangye Khadro, and Venerable Thubten Chodron.

We lack the qualifications of teachers like these, and consider ourselves instead enthusiastic “teaching assistants” working together with you to adapt and integrate these authentic practices to our modern lives.

If you are an expert in the lamrim, please forgive any errors or misunderstandings you may find in our reasoning and share with us your critiques and corrections. A Skeptic’s Path is a work in progress, and we will continue to update this page with fresh clarifications and insights.

“Buddhism is not meant to make more Buddhists, but to generate happy minds.”

— Geshe Tenzin Namdak, Skeptic’s Path interview, 2020

Table of Differences between A Skeptic’s Path and Tibetan Lamrim

TopicSkeptic’s Path ApproachExclusions from Lamrim
0. Relying on the Guru– Address in Refuge (5) as “who deserves our respect”
– Integrated into other topics
– Skipped as a dedicated initial topic
– Seeing guru as a buddha
1. What is the Mind?– Two types of meditation: stabilizing meditation calms the mind, analytical meditation changes the mind
– Becoming mindfully aware of one’s thoughts and realizing I am not my thoughts
– The spatial and temporal aspects of the mind
– The mind’s changeability, improvability, and the hypothesis of the mind’s perfectibility
– Continuity of consciousness before and after this lifetime
2. The Preciousness of Life– Gratitude for being alive today
– My vast potential for self-development and helping others
– The wonder, responsibility, and fragility of a self-aware human’s place in the universe, culminating 14 billion years’ cosmic and biological evolution
– Countless rebirths through the other realms of animal, hungry ghost, gods, etc.
– Karmic accumulations required for precious human rebirth
– Seeking further favorable rebirths
3. Impermanence– Gross change of the outer world and body
– Subtle change of the body
– Subtlest physical change of atoms and subatomic particles
– How the mind changes moment-to-moment
– Traditional 9-point meditation on death
4. Mental Cause and Effect (Karma)– Psychological and scientific basis: what we choose to contemplate reinforces that habit in our mind
– How to cultivate beneficial thoughts that lead to happiness
– How to let go of disturbing thoughts through self-forgiveness, secular purification practice
– Specific causes and results of karmic action between lifetimes
– Karma as a universal law
5. Refuge– Looking honestly where we currently go for refuge when seeking pleasure or fleeing pain
– Refuge in our capacity for change and our unlimited potential for good
– Who deserves our respect for having developed their best human qualities?
– Explicit outer refuges of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
6. Suffering– Identifying the psychological causes of suffering: attachment (exaggerated pleasure), anger (exaggerated pain), and ignorance (exaggerated self)
– The suffering of change: how pleasures in themselves are unsatisfying
– Elaborate meditation on types of suffering (explored more in Love & Compassion)
– 12 links of dependent origination, including multiple rebirths
7. Renunciation– Cultivating determination and courage to let go of the psychological roots of suffering: attachment, anger, and ignorance– Renouncing samsara and future rebirths, the universe as we know it
– Nirvana as the end of suffering rebirths
– Seeking to be reborn in higher rebirths
8. Love & Compassion– Equanimity
– Lovingkindness (wishing others to be happy)
– Compassion (wishing others to be free from suffering)
– Sympathetic Joy (rejoicing in others’ goodness and potential for self-development)
– Contemplation of suffering due to past and future rebirth and other realms
– All beings have been my mother
9. The Interdependent Nature of Reality– Dependent origination of objects through mind, parts, causes
– Dependent origination of self through mind, parts, causes
– The emptiness and immateriality of the mind (like math or love, but not a soul)
– Emptiness of concepts and emptiness of emptiness
– Subtler analyses of emptiness
– Tantra or clear light views on emptiness
TopicEpisodes
1. What is the Mind?Episode 1: What Is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment?
Episode 2: What Is Meditation?
Episode 3: Guided Meditation – Stabilizing the Mind and Watching Thoughts
Episode 6: What Is the Mind?
Episode 7: Guided Meditation – What is the Mind?
2. The Preciousness of LifeEpisode 4: The Preciousness of Life, from Cosmos to the Kardashians
Episode 5: Guided Meditation – The Preciousness of Life
3. ImpermanenceEpisode 9: Embracing Impermanence
Episode 10: Guided Meditation – Embracing Impermanence
4. Mental Cause and Effect (Karma)Episode 11: Mental Cause and Effect
Episode 12: Guided Meditation – Mental Cause and Effect
5. RefugeEpisode 14: What Do You Do When You’re Alone?
6. SufferingEpisode 15: Am I More Important Than Everyone Else in the Universe?
Episode 16: Guided Meditation – Letting Go of Suffering
7. RenunciationEpisode 17: The Red Pill of Renunciation – Embracing Reality as It Is
Episode 18: Guided Meditation — Renunciation
8. Love & CompassionEpisode 22: Spiritual Democracy
Episode 23: Guided Meditation — Transforming Bias with Equanimity 
Episode 25: What Is Love?
Episode 26: Guided Meditation on Love
Episode 28: What Is Compassion?

Episode 29: Guided Compassion Meditation

Episode 30: Guided Tonglen Meditation — Exchanging Yourself with Others
Episode 31: Universalizing — Transforming Pain and Pleasure into Love and Compassion
Episode 32: Guided Meditation — Universalizing our Problems and Pleasures

Episode 34: Sympathetic Joy: Opening Your Heart to the Happiness of Others
9. The Interdependent Nature of RealityEpisode 37: How Things Exist
Episode 38: Guided Meditation — How Things Exist
Episode 39: The Interdependent Nature of Reality
Episode 40: Guided Meditation on the Interdependent Nature of Reality
Episode 42: Who Am I?
Episode 43: Guided Meditation — The Interdependent Self

If you’d like to meditate on the whole path, we have compiled a guided meditation that briefly goes through all the topics in a single session: Episode 44: Secular Guided Meditation on the Buddhist Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim).

How to Meditate (Wisdom), Kathleen MacDonald

Meditations on the Path to Enlightenment (Tushita), Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden

Guided Meditations on the Stages of the Path (Snow Lion), Venerable Thubten Chodron

The Library of Wisdom and Compassion (Wisdom), His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Thubten Chodron

The Foundation of Buddhist Thought (Wisdom), Geshe Tashi Tsering

Photo by Eric Gross: “Tibetan monks on the beach at Coney Island Brooklyn,” 2019

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