by His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama
Prior to the Kalachakra Initiation
Chapter Eight of the Bodhicaryavatara
Kalachakra Bloomington, Indiana USA, August 20 – 22, 1999
Day 1, August 20, 1999
His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama
The preliminary recitations that we just performed constituted what are known as the Three Daily Activities which are paying homage to the Buddha by reflecting on his kindness and enlightened qualities, reciting passages from the Sutras expressing the key teachings of the Buddha and finally reflecting on the transient nature of life, impermanence. The last verse was of dedication dedicating the merit and virtue accumulated from engaging in such activities.
Next is the recitation of the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra presents the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness and of all of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, it is the most concise sutra that presents the teachings on emptiness. The recitation of the Heart Sutra is common to all of the Buddhist traditions following the Mahayana Sutras. There are some differences in the lengths and translations of the Heart Sutra but it is common in all Mahayana traditions to recite this sutra. Of course we will recite it in Tibetan but those in the audience who are Japanese or Chinese, please feel free to quietly recite the sutra in your own languages. Those of you unfamiliar with the sutra please reflect upon the profound and enlightened qualities of the Buddha.
After this I as normally do, I will recite two verses. The first is the salutation verse from Maitreya’s Abhisamayalamkara, the Ornament of Clear Realization and the second is the salutation verse from Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamikakarika, Fundamentals of the Middle Way.
Since the text that I am basing the teachings on is the meditation chapter from Santideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, I will do a recitation of salutation to Manjusri.
As is the custom at the beginning of a teaching to cultivate the proper and appropriate motivation and state of mind, we will recite the formula for taking refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as well as reaffirming the generation of bodhicitta, the altruistic intention to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. When one takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha one does so for the higher purpose of fulfilling the welfare of all other sentient beings. With this in mind one should cultivate the right and appropriate motivation.
The chapter on meditation from Santideva’s text, the version I have consists of nine folios. Since we have three days to cover these nine folios and there is no need to be concerned about the entire text, I felt that at the beginning today I would present a general overview of the Buddha’s teachings. Particularly since Tibetan Buddhism is a comprehensive form of Buddhism that contains the essential aspects of all of the elements of the Buddhist tradition such as the Lesser Vehicle, the Great Vehicle and the Vajrayana Vehicle, so I feel that perhaps it would be beneficial to have a general overview at the beginning.
At the outset however I would like to make one thing clear, which is my basic belief that I share with others whenever I have the opportunity, is that I generally believe that it is more reliable, more appropriate and more beneficial for people to remain within their own traditional faith. Given the diversity of cultures, societies, environments and so on, there have evolved a multiplicity and diversity of spiritual traditions. Generally I feel it is safer and more reliable for individuals to follow one’s own traditional faith.
Out of millions of individuals there might be a few who, for whatever reason, either not ell exposed to their traditional religions or have not acquired any particular interest in their traditional faith, but whose vision of life is not totally defined by a materialistic perspective. They are aware of the limitations of the materialistic way of life and recognize the need for some sort of a spiritual element in their lives whereby their basic aspirations can be fulfilled through some sort of spiritual teachings. Not only this but there are also individuals who would like to cultivate a spiritual life within the framework of a traditional religious teaching. So this is possible.
For example in Tibet ever since Buddhism flourished there, the majority of the Tibetan people have been Buddhists; they follow the Buddha’s teachings. However at least over the last four centuries there have been Muslim communities in Tibet, followers of the Islamic faith. The Muslim faith probably came to Tibet through Kashmir or Ladhak. In any case in Tibet there were those who followed the Islamic faith over the last four centuries and also from the turn of this century there were a few Tibetans who adopted Christianity as their own personal religion.
So we see that just as in Tibet where the overall culture and society may follow the Buddhist faith, there were however individuals who followed different faith traditions. Similarly in the West, although the main religious faith of Western society is the Judeo-Christian tradition however out of a society of millions of individuals there are a few who are inclined towards teachings outside the main Judeo-Christian tradition. For example here the majority of people who have gathered for this teaching are individuals with an interest and inclination towards Eastern spiritual traditions in general and Buddhist teachings in particular.
However I think it is very important that those who’s personal inclination and affinity may be towards Buddhism in this case not to fall into the trap of criticizing or being overly critical of one’s traditional religion. In the case of an individual because of his inclination and mental disposition, although the traditional religion may not seem effective in their individual case this does not mean that the traditional religion and its message is not effective nor a source of inspiration for millions of others. So it is very important not to lose one’s reverence and respect for one’s traditional religion.
There are two grounds for this. First of all the traditional religion continues to serve the spiritual aspirations of millions of individuals so out of respect for individuals’ choices and their rights, one needs to pay reverence and respect towards the traditional religion. Furthermore we are living in a time when we all recognize the importance of developing inter-religious understanding and harmony. Under such circumstances it is very important not to criticize and judge other religious traditions but rather to maintain respect, reverence and admiration towards other traditions.
To give the example of my own case, I consider myself as someone who is a devout follower of the Buddha Shakyamuni. I can actually claim that my admiration for the Buddha is grounded in a genuine conviction based upon understanding of the essence of his teachings. I also feel that at least in me there is the perfect realization of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. So this is the case of my own personal belief as a committed practicing Buddhist.
But at the same time when I look at other faith traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other major world religions, I have a profound sense of admiration and reverence for them. This is because each of the great spiritual traditions has served the spiritual needs of millions of individuals in the past, they continue to do so and they will continue in the future. They provide spiritual solace and inspiration as well as a deep sense of fulfillment of peoples’ spiritual needs. In a sense these are very powerful and profound methods for other sentient beings to bring about the fulfillment of their spiritual aspirations. They are in a sense sources of profound benefit to millions of individuals. So when I look at these other faith traditions from this angle, my admiration and reverence for these traditions tremendously increases. One of the aspects this reflects is the diversity and multiplicity of the mental inclinations, spiritual inclinations and mental dispositions and interests of sentient beings.
On what grounds do I base this kind of attitude or perspective of the other faith traditions? Again I draw from my own Buddhist teachings. For example if one looks at the Buddha’s teachings they are, within the followers of a single master, the Buddha Shakyamuni, there is a tremendous diversity. This is so particularly in the realm of philosophy where one finds a great diversity. In some cases divergent and conflicting opinions can be found. For example within the followers of the Mahayana tradition, all of whom accept the idea of the selflessness of phenomena, the no-self of phenomena, there are the Mind-Only School and the Middle Way School. From the point of view of the Mind-Only School when looking at the understanding of emptiness as presented by the Madhyamika School, regard it as nihilistic. They view it as constituting a negation of everything. When one looks at the Mind-Only School from the perspective of the Madhyamika School, they feel that not only has the Mind-Only School fallen into the extreme of absolutism but also the extreme of nihilism. So one can see that not only is there diversity but in some areas there are conflicting perspectives as well.
What is the significance of all of this diversity and in some cases contradictory viewpoints, all of which are attributed, in the case of Mahayana Buddhism, to the same teacher, the Buddha Shakyamuni? For me the profound lesson one needs to learn from this tremendous diversity is an appreciation of the diversity of the mental inclinations and mental dispositions of practitioners. If this is the case within the Buddhist traditions themselves then certainly there are sufficient grounds to extend this perspective to other traditions and admire the richness and diversity of the spiritual teachings.
Also since the majority of people who are gathered here have an interest in the Buddha’s teaching and have an affinity and inclination towards the teachings of the Buddha, I would like to make an appeal. I think it is very important for those who consider themselves to be practicing Buddhists to cultivate a deeper understanding of the teachings of the Buddha. Without some understanding of the teachings of the Buddha your practice will not have effect and it will not have the benefits you seek. Especially if one’s interest and practice of the Buddhadharma is not grounded in some kind of deeper understanding and if it is based on a superficial premise such as following a certain fashion, even though one may practice one’s practice will not have the effect it would otherwise have. Therefore it is very important to cultivate a deeper understanding.
How does one cultivate a deeper understanding of the teachings of the Buddha? Here the key is to develop some understanding of a basic, overall framework of the Buddha’s teaching. Whatever one practices one will be able to situate that within an overall understanding of the basic framework of the Buddhadharma. This I think is very important. When one does this one’s practice will have an added dimension; it will have an added effectiveness.
I would also like to point out that when one speaks about Dharma and when one tries to cultivate an understanding of the Dharma, one’s attitude towards the Dharma should not be like that of other forms of knowledge such as just gathering information. The essence of the Dharma is the practice. For example when one speaks about food, although one can go on with a very detailed and sophisticated discussion of food and how it is prepared but at the end of the discussion one has yet to eat it. The very purpose of the food is not fulfilled. No matter how elaborate the discussion or one’s understanding of the food, one has not eaten.
In a similar way of course one can enter into very complex and highly sophisticated discourse on the Dharma. However at the end of the day if one does not implement the teachings, if one does not practice the Dharma then the essence of the Dharma is lost. Just as when food is not eaten, its purpose is not fulfilled. Similarly in the case of the Dharma at the end of the day if it is not practiced then the purpose of the Dharma is not fulfilled. The purpose of the Dharma is to bring about discipline to one’s mind, to tame and discipline one’s mind. This is the purpose of the practice of the Dharma.
Since the essence of Dharma practice is bringing about inner transformation and discipline within one’s mind, it is very important that right from the beginning, even when engaging or participating in a teaching, both on the part of the teacher as well as student to have the right kind of relationship. One needs the right kind of attitude so that even in the teaching itself the subject matter that is being taught is constantly related to one’s own mind so that there is no gap between one’s state of mind and the teaching being given. As the Kadampa masters said that when a teaching is being given and one is listening whether it be on the part of the teacher or on the part of the listener, if there is a gap between them then the teaching is not successful. So it is important when participating in a teaching, not only for the students but also the teacher to insure that their state of mind is constantly related to the points of the teaching. There should be no gap between one’s state of mind and the teaching being given.
Otherwise normally when one approaches a teaching, often mental afflictions arise in one’s mind. For example it is normal for all of us when we first try to study a text, at the beginning when our minds are afflicted by anxiety as to not knowing and a lack of understanding, to have anxiety dominate our mind. As one deepens one’s intellectual understanding of the text then one may get to the point where one feels that one has mastered it. One has knowledge, it has increased and at this point the anxiety dissolves to be replaced by a sense of pride, in fact arrogance. This is so much so that one starts to feel competitive towards one’s perceived equals and look down upon those whom one considers to be inferior in their knowledge. Towards someone of greater understanding one feels envy.
Already one’s mind has become dominated by the mental afflictions, which if one examines carefully arise whenever there is the opportunity. They arise whenever one gives them an opportunity, as the mental afflictions are very opportunistic. Whenever there is the opportunity they naturally arise within one’s mind. On the other hand when one does not have such anxiety then one’s mind can be become dominated by discouragement, depression, no interest or no enthusiasm. One’s mind tends to swing between on the one hand discouragement and on the other hand arrogance. This is how the mental afflictions afflict one’s mind.
Therefore it is important that whatever understanding one has developed be turned into the understanding of a Dharma practice. Otherwise there is the danger that if as a result of one’s cultivation of understanding one becomes more and more arrogant then what a Tibetan master would say will become a reality. This is that the gods themselves have turned into demons. As other masters have said that for someone who has a high level of intellectual understanding and very rational resulting in great arrogance, such a person often has a high degree of skepticism. For such a person it is said that even if the Buddha himself came in person, there is little chance that the arrogant person could be tamed. One must insure that one does not fall into this extreme or danger. The point that I am stressing is that one should insure that the Dharma becomes a Dharma practice and the Mahayana teachings become a Mahayana practice.
This is not something unique to the Buddhadharma alone. I think it is equally applicable to all other spiritual traditions. Of course it is up to the individual as to whether or not to become a religious practitioner or not. Once one has chosen to become a religious practitioner, it is very important to make sure that one actually implements the teachings within one’s life, integrate the teachings within one’s daily life. This I think is very important. One needs to make sure that one’s thoughts and actions are commensurate or in accordance with the spiritual teachings one believes in.
When one speaks about Buddhadharma, I think it is important to understand what is meant by Buddhadharma. What is the essence of the Buddhadharma? The Sanskrit term dharma has the etymological meaning of sustaining or being protected. What is being sustained or what kind of protection is being sought? Here I think it is important to understand that that the dharma in the context of Buddhadharma must be understood in terms of nirvana, in terms of the true cessation of all suffering and mental afflictions.
How is one protected and what is sustained? This refers to in the case of the Buddhadharma of dealing with the mental afflictions which lay at the root of all of one’s suffering. This is true not only in this life but also of many lifetimes. By the means of dealing with the mental afflictions, by countering and overcoming the mental afflictions, one gains nirvana thus one is protected. Therefore when one speaks about Buddhadharma, one must ground one’s understanding of the Dharma in terms of nirvana.
For a practitioner of the Buddhadharma the key task is to adopt an attitude towards the mental afflictions as that of an enemy and one must combat the mental afflictions. Also one must apply the antidotes to the mental afflictions and this is the essence of the task of a Dharma practitioner in the Buddhist sense. Therefore at least a Buddhist practitioner must have the following conditions. He or she must never willfully embrace any of the mental afflictions. This is a sort of minimum requirement. On the other hand if someone continues to deliberately and willfully embrace the mental afflictions, refusing to acknowledge their shortcomings and their destructive nature, there is simply no way that such a person could be described as a Buddhist practitioner.
In the realm of the physical discipline sometimes it is possible that by an imposition from outside such as a threat of force, one can create a degree of discipline or politeness. For example if someone is nodding off and another comes by threatening to strike them with a stick if they fall asleep again, that person will become more awake and alert. However this is not the case when dealing with the mind. One cannot simply impose upon the mind that it will change simply saying to reject the mental afflictions. One must combat with the afflictions. Simply by imposing on the mind the wish, such transformation cannot take place.
How then does one bring about a transformation? I believe that the transformation of the mind has to be come about as the result of the voluntary adoption of a particular discipline. It has to be consciously cultivated by reflecting upon the pros and cons of the mental afflictions, on the destructive nature of the mental afflictions, on the benefits of discarding them, on the benefits of overcoming the mental afflictions and so on.
Also one needs to look at the examples of the great enlightened beings like the Buddha and reflecting that these great enlightened beings have attained a total transformation of their minds and perfect peace. They accomplished this by first applying the antidotes and later overcoming the negative aspects of their minds such as the mental afflictions. By engaging in such disciplines they have attained mental discipline and peace of mind. Through this way they have attained perfect enlightenment, a state of joyfulness. By reflecting upon these kinds of examples and also reflecting upon the destructive nature of the afflictions and so on then gradually an enthusiasm and interest will arise within one’s mind to seek out such a discipline. In this way one will be able to voluntarily adopt within one the kind of discipline that I am speaking about that leads to transformation.
What one finds is that in the realm of mental phenomena it is only by applying other mental factors and thought processes that one can undermine the force of the mental afflictions and so on. Given this complexity one finds in the practices different approaches. Principally there are two categories of practices, one belonging to what is known as the method aspect of the path and other known as the wisdom aspect of the path. Generally speaking the method aspects of the path are thought processes where it is not so much the actual object of mind that is emphasized, not the cognition of an object but rather cultivating a particular thought process through which the transformation takes place. For example true renunciation, which is the genuine aspiration to attain liberation from suffering and samsaric existence, is a part of the method aspect of the path. Similar is great compassion. These are states of mind or realizations that are attained as the result of prolonged contemplation.
These need to be cultivated through processes of insight and understanding. For example great compassion, which is the aspiration to see others free from suffering arises on the basis of thought processes that reflect upon the nature of the sufferings of others and so on. The factor of insight or wisdom is also very critical.
One realizes that the inner discipline, the transformation of the mind is something that has to occur on the basis of a voluntary adoption of the spiritual discipline and is not something that can be imposed from outside by the means of force. What is the method or process by which one brings about this change? Here I believe that it is through cultivating constant familiarity that this occurs. It is a fact of the nature of our human minds that the more one habituates it, the more one familiarizes it with something, the greater one’s ability to sustain that thought process or the greater will be one’s ability to cultivate that understanding. This is a very natural fact of the mental factors of the mind.
What is required is to cultivate a constant familiarity and through this constant familiarity one will be able to bring about a gradual transformation and change. One can see change within one’s own life. For example one may have a very strong emotional reaction to a small incident or have a negative state of mind that is slight at the beginning but it then becomes a very powerful surge of negative emotions. From the Buddhist point of view the reason why such occurrences come about is because of one’s long habituation and familiarity with the thought processes leading to the experience of negative emotions. Therefore if one cultivates the habits of contrary thought processes or positive aspects of the mind then similarly one will gradually make the positive emotions more and more natural, a more spontaneous part of one’s mind.
For example someone may have had a very short temper in his or her early life. Then as the result of reflecting and contemplating on the destructive nature of anger and on the shortcomings to oneself of having such powerful negative emotions, and by cultivating the antidotes to anger and hatred such caring and respect towards others, gradually the person becomes gentler and more compassionate. This is something that we can all attest to. When one talks about this kind of transformation obviously one cannot expect change in terms of days or weeks. Rather one can only see results or fruits of mental transformation in terms of years; the possibility of change takes years.
Why is it that through familiarity the mind changes, that certain thought processes become more natural and spontaneous? It is a natural fact; it is the nature of reality just as a sprout comes out of a seed. Similarly there is a law of causation that through constant familiarity, through constant cultivation of positive thought processes certain emotions and experience become more dominant within one’s mind. Therefore when one thinks about the cultivation of constant familiarity one is talking about in essence the practice of meditation. The Tibetan word for meditation is gom, which has the etymological meaning of deliberately cultivating familiarity with a chosen object.
Meditation is nothing but a state of mind that is derived as the result of consciously and deliberately cultivating familiarity with a chosen object. This kind of understanding, meditative understanding can only arise on the basis of deep reflection and contemplation, which is said to be the knowledge derived through contemplation or reflection. This must be grounded based on an understanding derived through study and learning.
So when one talks about cultivating understanding or Dharma, it is not adequate to simply have the information and say that such and such a lama says this in such and such a text. One should not leave one’s understanding of the Dharma at only that level. Because at that level basically what one has done is gathered information but so far as one’s own self is concerned, one has not taken a standpoint. One is acting as a neutral, dispassionate observer. What is required is to process the information, integrating it to one’s own mind so that the understanding one gains is based on a personal understanding as the result of contemplation. This level of understanding is said to be the second stage of understanding known as understanding derived through contemplation. This then can lead to the third level of understanding, which is the understanding derived through meditative practice.
Although in actual fact it is the understanding derived through meditative experience that is the direct antidote of the mental afflictions but before one arrives there one must go through the gradual process of cultivating the first two levels of understanding. It is in this way that one can gradually bring about the transformation within one’s mind. Otherwise if one leaves one’s understanding purely at the level of information then if one is hard-pressed why it is the case by someone else then one exhausts any explanation quickly as one has not integrated that understanding. One ends up saying that such and such a person said so but one doesn’t know for sure oneself. This is the danger that one may fall into if one’s knowledge is not integrated and cultivated on the basis of understanding. (Break)
I spoke about the importance of how a spiritual discipline and mental transformation can take place as the result of deliberately cultivating prolonged habituation and familiarity [with a topic]. I am talking about the practice of Dharma. What is the actual procedure of the development of Dharma realizations from the Buddhist point of view?
It would be helpful here to reflect upon the meaning of a verse found in Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way where Nagarjuna pays homage to Gautama Buddha whose heart was compelled by great compassion and who taught the Sublime Dharma in order to dispel and eliminate all forms of distorted views.
[I prostrate to Gautama
Who through compassion
Taught the true doctrine,
Which leads to the relinquishing of all views.]
In this verse Nagarjuna encapsulates the essence of the Buddha’s teaching. There he praised and paid homage the Buddha Shakyamuni by reflecting upon the Buddha’s great qualities of wisdom and compassion. He suggests that the Buddha’s heart is influenced by the powerful force of great compassion towards other sentient beings and out of this compassionate motivation he taught the path or methods that enables all sentient beings to eliminate the negativities of their minds. Through eliminating all of their mental afflictions and ultimately all of their distorted views they can attain perfect enlightenment.
What one finds here is that Nagarjuna paid homage to the Buddha Shakyamuni by explicitly identifying two of the Buddha’s foremost enlightened qualities, the quality of wisdom and the quality of compassion. Another significance of this verse is that it suggests that even the teacher, Buddha himself was not fully enlightened from the beginning. The Buddha was just like us, a sentient being at the beginning, an ordinary being with flaws. But as the result of prolonged practice and the development of great compassion along with the cultivation of wisdom the Buddha eventually developed within himself these enlightened qualities. He eventually attained the perfection of both compassion and wisdom thus becoming a fully enlightened being.
When the Buddha taught the path to other sentient beings, his disciples and so on he taught the path from his own personal experience, setting forth the entire process by which one can go through this spiritual transformation. He drew from his own personal experience having gradually gone through the process overcoming various levels of negativities and mental afflictions. He gradually cultivated various levels of spiritual realization such as compassion, bodhicitta and so on.
One finds that the key aspects of the Buddha’s qualities are compassion and wisdom. Similarly the essence of the path that he taught are the practices of compassion or skillful means and the practice of wisdom, the wisdom of emptiness. Together what one has here is a path that is the union of method and wisdom. Here again one can reflect on a verse from Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way where he stated that Buddha taught the Dharma by means of the Two Truths. These Two truths are the conventional truth and the ultimate truth. Ultimately the insight that is being cultivated is the insight into the ultimate nature of reality. The understanding of this ultimate nature of reality is then grounded in and also leads to an understanding of conventional reality, which is the world of multiplicity. In a way one can say that there are two aspects of the path, method and wisdom, co-related to each other and to the two aspects of reality, the conventional and ultimate truths.
When one talks about the idea of the Two Truths, I think one can relate this to one’s ordinary experience. Even in one’s day to day life one often confronts situations where one’s perception on the situation does not correspond to the actual reality. This is a basic fact of one’s life. If one goes further one can even also say that even in one’s world view, one’s understanding of the physical universe, there is often a gap between one’s perception and understanding and the actual reality. For example, as a result in the advance of scientific knowledge particularly in the area of physics such as quantum mechanics and relativity theory, one finds that what was once thought to be an accurate representation of the physical world is no longer valid. One has had to modify one’s understanding so there is often a gap between one’s perception and reality. This is really the basis for the very idea of the Two Truths.
In fact if one looks at the philosophical traditions of ancient India, one finds that this model of approaching the understanding of reality within a framework of two truths is quite common including non-Buddhist schools. The term two truths is used also outside Buddhist philosophical circles. However when one looks at the understanding of Two Truths from the Madhyamika perspective then the concept of the Two Truths is related to the basic fact of the disparity between one’s perceptions and actual reality of things and events.
One can also speculate that, given the limited capacity of one’s ordinary levels of thought, one may perceive a situation or event being in one way. But given the limited capacity of one’’ ordinary knowledge the reality of the thing or event may be something else. Through subjecting one’s perceptions to deeper analysis, one will then be able to find out whether there is a gap between one’s perception and reality or that one’s perception does correspond to reality.
In fact this is how we advance in scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge of the physical universe does not arise simply by taking our perceptions of the world at face value. We do not stop at that but we ask questions and go beyond the level of appearance trying to penetrate to a deeper level of understanding of what actually is the true nature of reality. So in this way we have made advances in our scientific understanding of the physical universe.
The Madhyamika understanding of the Two Truths is also grounded in this appreciation or recognition of the disparity between one’s perceptions and reality. The Madhyamikas would distinguish between these two levels of reality, ultimate and relative truth by the following way. Any level of understanding that is derived as the result of penetrating into the deeper nature of reality, not being content with the level of appearances alone and probing into the actual essence of reality, what is discovered is said to be the ultimate truth or nature of reality. The knowledge that derives from the level of appearances or perception alone where one does not go beyond the bonds of convention or ordinary perception, this level of understanding is said to be the conventional truth. This is how the Madhyamikas would define ultimate truth and the conventional truth.
Again if one reflects upon the salutation verse of Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way one finds that Nagarjuna presents the theory of emptiness by the means of reflecting upon the characteristics of things and events. He analyzes such characteristics such as origination and cessation, one and many, existence and nonexistence, coming and going, and so on. He subjects these characteristics of dependently originated phenomena and then analyzes whether or not these characteristics are truly intrinsic to the phenomenon under investigation. So what one finds here is that dependently originated phenomena, things and events are taken as the subject under investigation. Their characteristics such as origination and cessation are then subjected to analysis of whether these characteristics are inherent or intrinsic characteristics or whether they exist as intrinsic natures of the things and events. As a result what one finds here is that although things and events possess these characteristics of origination, cessation, identity, difference, coming, going and so on, these characteristics are the relative nature of things and events. They are not intrinsic natures of the things and events.
The reason for this is that when one subjects them to analysis then one does not find them, their very identity or existence ceases to exist. For example when one subjects the idea of causation to critical analysis, when things come into being the question is that either they can come into being as the result of causes and conditions or they can come into being without any cause. Causeless production or the coming into being through no cause is untenable, which means things do come into being from causes and conditions. Now if this is the case are the causes identical to the effect or are the causes of a different nature than the effects?
Identical causes cannot produce an effect that is identical with itself therefore this is rejected. A cause that is independent of the effect again is untenable so this is rejected [as there is no link between cause and effect]. Both of the possible alternatives are rejected. One finds in Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way where he states there is nothing whatsoever at whatever time that something comes into being; from no cause, itself, by an independent cause or from both. So what one finds here is that the mind that analyzes the nature of things and events, so far as the perspective of that mind is concerned such diverse characteristics such as origination and cessation, singularity and multiplicity cease to exist. This is because the analyzing mind is the mind that probes into the essential nature of reality.
When one reflects along these lines then one will understand what is meant by the union of appearance and reality found in the various texts. Appearance here refers to the conventional level of reality and emptiness refers to the ultimate level of reality. These two, appearance and reality must be understood in relation to one and the same thing. One cannot talk about appearance on one basis and emptiness on another basis. So from the Madhyamika point of view the understanding of appearance and emptiness must be grounded on the basis of a single entity, thing or event. One needs to understand this as the unified nature of things and events.
To summarize, appearance refers to the dependently originated nature of things and emptiness refers the ultimate nature of reality. From the Madhyamika point of view in the final analysis the highest proof of emptiness is dependent origination. The fact that things are dependently originated suggests that things are absent of independent existence, things are absent of intrinsic existence.
When one also speaks about the idea of dependent origination, which is common to all Buddhist philosophical schools of thought, one needs to understand that there are different levels of understanding of this concept. First of all there is the level of understanding of dependent origination that is common to all Buddhist schools of thought. This is the understanding of dependent origination in terms of causal dependence, dependence on causes and conditions. Things and events come into being by dependence upon other causes and conditions. This is one level of understanding of dependent origination or pratityasamutpada.
There is a second level of understanding of dependent origination, which is common to the Madhyamika Schools, the Middle Way philosophical schools. Here the understanding of dependent origination is, in addition to the causal dependence, an understanding of dependence in terms of the relationship between parts and wholes, constituents and constituted. Every thing or every event when subjected to analysis will be found that their very existence or identity is dependent upon other factors such as parts that constitute the whole. This is a subtler understanding of dependent origination and it is also more universal. Whatever thing or event one takes to be the object of investigation, one will find that its very nature is in dependence on other factors, its parts or constituents.
However there is a third level of understanding of dependent origination, which is thought to be the subtlest and highest understanding of dependent origination. Here dependent origination is understood as interdependence, the nature of dependence is understood more in terms of the relationship between the designated basis and the designation. For example every event or phenomenon that has the capacity to function, a capacity to have an impact or to produce a result through either harm or benefit, whatever it may be, if one subjects it to analysis trying to discover what is the true referent to the term, the objective reality of the thing going beyond the label or designation then one finds that one cannot simply find the object.
This is the nature of things and events. When one thinks about a particular object one tends to believe that the term has some intrinsic relation to the basis of designation, one tends to believe that the thing has some kind of objective reality from itself, in and of itself. However when one subjects this to analysis one will find that actually that the very identity and existence starts to disappear. This of course does not suggest that the thing or object does not exist at all, it does exist, as one’s own experience is the proof that it exists. One can come into contact with it, one can interact with it and one can experience pain or pleasure in relation to it. One’s experience itself tells one or affirms its reality but when one searches for it, objective reality, one fails to find it.
This suggests that the thing does not exist in the way in which one believes it to exist. The object is devoid of the independent, objective reality that one believes it possesses. If this is the case then the only alternative left is some kind of conventional reality that one can accord to the thing. So one can only say that things and events exist only from the perspective of the unexamining, unanalyzing mind or consciousness. In a sense one can say that things and events exist only by means of a label, by means of a name or term.
In the Madhyamika literature when one finds references to name only, mere designation or mere imputation this is not suggesting that there are no things outside language. Rather it is suggesting that their level of reality must only be understood within the bounds of convention, within the boundaries of language and reference. What one finds here is a much more complex and subtle understanding of dependence of things and events, the dependent relationship between the designated basis and the designation.
Let us try to go further into the understanding of the first level of dependent origination, dependence in terms of causes and conditions. Here if one observes the natural world around one, one sees a multiplicity and diversity of changes and transformations. This is something that is obvious, that is very evident. The changes and transformations that one sees all around, in order for these to happen there must be at a subtler level, a deeper level a subtle process of change that is taking place. If there were no constant and dynamic changing process in nature at the subtle level then there would be simply no way for accounting for the change and diversity one perceives at the empirical level. Therefore from the Buddhist point of view all things and events are in constant flux, at a very subtle level going through constant transformation and change.
If the question is asked, “Why do these things and events have this nature of undergoing momentary change?” then the answer is that the very factors that brought the thing or event into being also planted the seed for this change. Also the causes and conditions themselves, if subjected to analysis, one finds are also themselves are subject to constant change and are part of dynamic processes. If the causes themselves were not of the same nature there would simply be no way to account for their ability to produce effects. Therefore the causes themselves are subject to constant change and the dynamic process which suggests that the causes themselves are produced by earlier instances of causes and conditions. These in turn were produced by preceding causes and conditions ad infinitum.
When one pushes one’s line of reasoning this way, one comes to the conclusion that the actual chain of causation must be beginningless, must be infinite. The alternative to this would be to posit a beginning to the chain of causation and if one does so then one will have to either accept a beginning with no particular reason or cause in which case it undermines the very idea of causation or one has to say that the beginning’s cause was a permanent, eternal factor. Positing such a factor again contradicts the very basic idea of causation, the principle of causation. So from the Buddhist point of view to pursue the line of thought suggested by the theory of causation one is compelled to accept the idea of an infinite or beginningless process.
If one asks further, “Why are things and events in dependence on causes and conditions? or “Why is there the suggestion of infinity when the process of causation is analyzed” the answer from the Buddhist perspective would be that is the way it is. This is the nature of reality. (Break)
I will continue with a general overview of the path. I spoke of the fundamental factor of how causes and conditions bring into being a particular thing or event, which is also the very factor that implants the seed for the cessation of that thing or event. Also I spoke about how when one pursues the line of reasoning, the causes and conditions themselves are products of preceding causes and conditions. These in turn are products of preceding causes and conditions and so on thus leading to an understanding of the infinity of the causal chain and the beginninglessness of the causal chain. Now this is the case if one were to look at things and events in terms of their continuum.
Of course at the level of manifestation because of the diversity one can validly conceive of, for instance in the context of a particular event, a beginning of the event and the end of the event. At the level of the world of multiplicity and the world of manifestation of course one can talk about a beginning and an end. But in terms of the actual continuum of things and events, especially when viewed through the principle of causation, then one finds that it is beginningless, it is infinite.
This is the nature of things and events, the nature of reality that one experiences. This is the nature of the world of dependent origination. Within this world of dependent origination one finds that by nature one finds two principal categories or kinds. On the one hand are those phenomena, which have physical or material properties such as color, shape, odor, tactile properties and so on. On the one side are all of these material objects or things that possess obstructive, material qualities. On the other side is the second category of phenomena, which do not possess material qualities but exist simply in the nature of mere experience, a nature of knowing and luminosity. This category of phenomena one calls the world of mind or consciousness.
Within the realm of mental phenomena, which is in the nature of mere knowing and experience called awareness or consciousness, the Tibetan term shepa, which means awareness by itself, suggests the quality of knowing. It has the subjective quality of knowing. Again within this realm there is diversity. For example when one sees something through one’s visual consciousness, one has a vivid image of that object in front of one that is the sensory experience of visual perception. When one sees things through one’s eyes, visual perception one also has because of this experience an immediate experience that “I am seeing” or “I see this”. Now of course this does not suggest that the visual perception itself is the I or self yet the experience of that perception does give rise to the thought that “I see this” or “I am seeing”.
A problem arises. If visual perception itself is the actual person, being or self then this cannot account for other observed facts of one’s subjective experience. For example one may be seeing something with one’s eyes at a particular instance but immediately thereafter due to some other circumstances one becomes distracted by hearing or smelling something. This distraction need not be an external object as one could withdraw one’s mind focusing single-pointedly on a thought. This suggests that even though one perception may be dominant at a particular given moment, one has the capacity to be dominated by other sensory perceptions like auditory or tactile sensations. Similarly one is capable of directing one’s focus inwardly to a purely subjective experience.
This suggests that underlying these diverse sensory and mental activities there is a continuing agent or subjective experiencer, a person or self that in a sense controls all of these various activities. There seems to be a person that is the true experiencer, that is the true perceiver. This is what is referred to be “I”, self, mine and so on. If one examines this kind of sense of self or sense of “I”, one finds that it arises in dependence on some kind of continuum. In the final analysis it said to be dependent on the continuum of the consciousness. Since as I discussed earlier, the continuum of the consciousness is beginningless and infinite, similarly the self or the I that is designated upon this continuum will also be accepted as beginningless and infinite in terms of its continuum.
As to what exactly the nature of this self, person, being or “I” is there is of course a diversity of opinion among the philosophers of ancient India. There is one camp of the ancient Indian schools of thought, a non-Buddhist school who on the whole accept some kind of independent entity that is unitary and so on, that is in the final analysis independent of the mind and body, independent of the mental and physical aggregates. This is one camp. The other camp to which all of the Buddhist schools belong to which reject the need to posit some kind of independent self that is independent of the physical and mental aggregates. Rather they accept the existence of a self in relation to the physical and mental aggregates.
Within these Buddhist schools there are some who maintain that in the final analysis the self has to be identified either with one or several of the psychophysical aggregates. There are then others who reject this kind of strict identification of the self with the aggregates but rather accept that the self or person must be understood only as a kind of a construct in relation to the psychophysical aggregates. Nothing within the psychophysical aggregates can be said to be really the true self. So the self is a construct that must be accepted in relation to the psychophysical aggregates.
Whatever the truth of these various positions the fact is that all of us have this natural sense of self, the natural thought of “I am”. On the basis of this natural sense of selfhood all of us also have a natural aspiration to be happy and to overcome suffering. This is a fact of our existence. It is on the basis of this natural aspiration, this fundamental aspiration to seek happiness and overcome suffering that all of us exist and survive. We survive on the basis of hope and this hope points towards the future although there is no guarantee that the future will be better than the present. But still we survive on the basis of hope and with hope we direct our thoughts towards the future. This kind of aspiration and hope is what lies at the root of our survival and existence. This is not something that is unique to human beings even animals also survive driven by this kind of instinctual aspiration to seek happiness and avoid suffering.
Among all sentient beings, this basic aspiration to seek happiness and shun suffering compared to human beings, beings in the animal realm have a limited pursuit of happiness. They are only able to pursue the fulfillment of this aspiration in limited circumstances and only related with the immediate moments of pain or pleasure. They have a very limited scope.
Unlike animals we human beings, because of our intelligence and imaginative faculties, we have the ability to project into the future and recall our experiences of the past. We are able then to make plans and build infrastructure for the future for others’ wellbeing. Also what is normal for human beings to protect themselves from potential misery later in life by earlier in life we accumulate wealth or create the appropriate conditions for whatever we may need in the future. Also we are able to project beyond the concerns of our own existence and make plans for the wellbeing of future generations. Only we human beings have this capacity to project ahead and make long-term plans and try to pursue the fulfillment of our basic aspiration to seek happiness and overcome suffering.
If one examines carefully one’s normal day to day experience, one’s pursuit of happiness and suffering is dominated by the experience of the senses. The kind of happiness one seeks, the type of suffering one seeks to avoid are on the whole sensory level experiences. Whether it is attraction towards a particular object and its acquisition or avoiding physical threats, the type of fulfillment one is seeking is purely at a sensory level. One’s pursuit of this happiness and avoidance of suffering is dominated by sensory level experiences.
However there is another dimension, a deeper level of the experience of happiness and the avoidance of suffering, which is a satisfaction and sense of fulfillment that one acquires as the result of reflective thought processes. Here the experiences are beyond the level of the sense and if one compares these two levels of experience, the physical and the mental, I would say that the mental level of pain and pleasure is more acute and more powerful. The reason for this is simple. For example if one has cultivated within oneself a certain degree of an inner sense of fulfillment or happiness based on mental composure then even if one achieves material facilities it is helpful. But if one lacks those material comforts because of one’s inner qualities, one is able to sustain one’s sense of wellbeing.
On the contrary if one lacks this inner sense of fulfillment and composure then even if one is surrounded by the finest material facilities then one simply cannot enjoy the benefits of those material comforts. This suggests that the mental level of the experience of pain and pleasure is more acute than the sensorial level.
So just as all of us, by virtue of our very existence have this fundamental, innate aspiration to seek happiness and overcome suffering, also all of us have the natural right to fulfill this aspiration to be happy and overcome suffering.
What one finds in the Buddhist teachings is the suggestion that so far as the nature of awareness itself and its continuum is concerned, it is beginningless and there is nothing that can obstruct the flow of the consciousness. There is nothing that can obstruct or bring about the cessation of the continuum of awareness therefore awareness is not only said to be beginningless but also in terms of its continuum it is also infinite and endless.
Compared to this suffering and pain are more relative and have a more circumstantial nature. Sufferings and pain come into being as the result of many other factors, many of which are circumstantial conditions. If one examines the nature of suffering, it is fairly obvious that their nature is dependent on causes and conditions, the fact that the experience of suffering comes about as the result of other causes and conditions. Take the example of physical pain like headache or hunger pains. These very obvious types of pain are recognized as undesirable sufferings even by animals. There is universal agreement between humans and animals that those types of experiences are painful.
In the case of someone experiencing severe hunger and suffering for this, one could go into a detailed analysis of what the various causes are. Of course the immediate cause is a lack of food, something to eat. Now why is it that the person has no food to eat? One can go further into the causes. Now there is a level of causation that is very apparent but there is another level of connection that is not so obvious but which one can infer through some reasoning and reflection. For example one can talk about misguided economic policies of the country, the failure of the person’s initiative and so on. One can bring in all sorts of factors that have help lead to the poverty of this person.
When one thinks along these lines then one will appreciate the significance of the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths. One of my fundamental beliefs is that the purpose of our existence is to be happy, to seek happiness. In fact within the natural world the things that are of interest to us and the things that have a direct bearing on our experiences are the things that give rise to happiness and suffering. What matters to us is happiness and suffering. I believe that the fundamental purpose of our existence is to seek happiness.
When one talks of happiness obviously one is also talking about suffering as happiness and suffering are related. When one thinks along these lines one appreciates that what one does not desire instinctively, naturally and by one’s innate nature is suffering and what one does seek and aspire to attain by one’s innate nature is happiness. If this is the case then one needs to examine what are the origins, what are the factors that give rise to suffering that one does not desire and one must try to get rid of those factors, causes and conditions. What one aspires to attain is happiness therefore one must look into the factors, causes and conditions that give rise to the happiness that one seeks. One must then cultivate those causes and conditions, seek them and develop them. This is how one will pursue the fundamental aspiration to be happy.
Also one knows that happiness and suffering do not exist as absolutes. There is no absolute happiness and there is no absolute, independent suffering. Rather happiness and suffering, pain and pleasure come into being through dependence upon many factors, causes and conditions. Therefore one appreciates the significance of the teachings of the Buddha on the Four Noble Truths. Because one does not desire suffering it is in one’s interest to seek the origin of suffering and try to eliminate the origin by finding the way to do this.
Earlier I spoke about the Dharma in the context of Buddhadharma, being nirvana or the liberation from suffering. Here it is important to recognize that in the Buddhist context where one is referring to happiness, the achievement of happiness as being the ultimate aspiration of a spiritual practitioner, one’s understanding of happiness should not be confined to ordinary happiness of the senses. Rather here one is talking about lasting happiness, permanent happiness which is the total cessation of suffering and its underlying root or cause that are the afflictive emotions and thoughts.
This true cessation of suffering along with the mental afflictions is nirvana. Of course although one has go through the gradual stages of attaining various levels of cessation, the highest cessation is the complete overcoming of all of the afflictive thoughts and emotions. This is the true nirvana. This is the Third Noble Truth, the Truth of Cessation and this can only be attained when one cultivates the right path, the true path that leads to the attainment of such liberation.
Given the happiness that is being sought in the context of the Buddhist practice is not the ordinary happiness of sensual experience but rather lasting happiness defined in terms of total cessation of negativity along with the afflictive thoughts and emotions, therefore when the Buddha taught the Truth of Suffering again one’s understanding should not be confined to one’s ordinary experience of suffering. Even animals can recognize ordinary suffering as painful and as undesirable. Rather the understanding of the nature of suffering has to be grounded in a deeper recognition of the nature of suffering, which is based upon the awareness of recognition that the mental afflictions are the ultimate root of one’s suffering. Thus one generates an attitude that those are one’s true enemies. Once one has this kind of deeply felt conviction in the recognition of the afflictions of the mind as being one’s enemy then one will develop the genuine aspiration or desire to attain freedom from suffering and freedom from the afflictive emotions. In this way one will be able to understand the nature of cessation as well. In other words it is important to have a deep appreciation of the nature of suffering when one talks of the Truth of Suffering.
When one thinks along these lines one will appreciate the statement that all the eighty-four thousand sets of discourses taught by the Buddha, all of them converge on the teachings of Dependent Origination. What is the significance of this statement? It is first that the object of aspiration of a Buddhist practitioner is nirvana that is the true cessation of suffering and the afflictive thoughts and emotions. This requires the practitioner to have a deeply felt conviction that at the root of suffering lies the mental and emotional afflictions. Therefore any teachings of the Buddha must either directly or indirectly eventually converge on the point of teaching the techniques and methods for eliminating and diminishing the force the mental and emotional afflictions. This is the meaning of the statement that all of the Buddha’s teachings converge on the teachings of Dependent Origination.
Once one has this kind of understanding and deeply felt conviction of the negativity and destructive nature of the afflictions of thoughts and emotions, then one will definitely have a genuine desire to seek freedom from them. One will seek to overcome those afflictions. Even for the skeptic who does not have a belief in any religious system, if this person engages in some sort of reflective thought, simply asking the question “What happens when powerful negative emotions occur within my mind?” for example strong anger or hostility. Sometimes it may be the case that some person when they become very angry towards another tends to have some sense of satisfaction thinking “I was able to show them”. However generally speaking when strong hostility or anger arises within one’s mind, it undermines one’s wellbeing. It begins to effect one’s thoughts, appetite as well as one’s sleep. Thus these negative emotions effect one’s physical health. It is said that if one is really angry, at that instant even if one meets a friend one may find that friend annoying. Such is the power of the negative emotions.
Similarly when one has strong attachment or desire for something, this begins to undermine the stability of one’s mind. If the attachment or desire is very strong then one’s mind will be totally dominated by this craving to attain the object of desire. One is willing to do anything, exploiting someone, deceiving someone, telling lies and so on until the object is attained. Such is the power of craving.
Similarly when one has strong pride or arrogance then when gripped by this pride and arrogance one falls into a self-congratulatory, complacent state of mind. Thus one neglects many other important purposes. When one has such arrogance one tends to look down upon others. One is competitive towards others as well as envious of others. Pride leads to envy and other negative emotions. So when powerful negative emotions arise in one, one knows even without any religious beliefs that they undermine one’s sense of wellbeing and the underlying stability of one’s mind.
The point I am trying to make is that when one thinks carefully, one will realize that the negative emotions are the destroyer, the ultimate cause that lets one down. If there is any possibility that these could be eliminated, could be rooted out of one’s psyche then surely one must find the aspiration and that endeavor worthy of effort.
From the Buddhist point of view if one looks at the nature of suffering then one will appreciate that at the root of all suffering or painful experiences lay with the powerful negative emotions and thoughts. Whether the suffering or pain are the result of human creation or the results of natural events such as sickness, aging or death, whatever painful experiences or sufferings one encounters from the Buddhist point of view all are the products or consequences of the afflictive emotions and thoughts.
This alone would be a benefit to achieve total freedom as a result of the total overcoming of the negative emotions and thoughts. Even the very awareness that one cultivates as the result of reflecting upon the destructive nature of suffering and cultivates some feeling of distance from the powerful negative emotions and thoughts, this in itself has a powerful effect on one’s mind. This in itself creates a strength within one and has a powerful effect upon one’s mind.
Even in the case of ordinary human conflicts between individuals if one is able to have some kind of assessment of the power, strength and capability of one’s opponent, although one may not be able to totally overwhelm one’s enemy but this knowledge itself will give one confidence. Similarly in the case of a spiritual practitioner whose sole purpose is to combat the negative emotions, when one has a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the afflictive emotions, an understanding of their strength and destructive nature, this knowledge in itself can create confidence in one. This is similar to having performed an assessment of the enemy’s strength.
As one finds in the Buddhist scriptures and also in the writings of the great Kadampa masters, it is said that the true practitioner must cultivate some kind of skillful relationship or understanding in the afflictive thoughts and emotions. These masters are not suggesting that one should be skilled in expressing these powerful negative emotions. All of us are so habituated to expressing these powerful negative emotions that we are all in some sense experts. We do not need to develop such expertise in the experience of the negative emotions, as we are all experts in expressing anger, attachment and so on. Just as the Seventh Dalai Lama stated in so far as one’s being an expert in the experience and expression of negative emotions, all of us are equal with the only difference being one’s external appearance. Some may have a holy appearance wearing impressive robes but in actual fact of being totally habituated and being an expert in the negative emotions we are all the same. The great Kadampa masters are suggesting that one develops a new expertise in understanding the nature of the afflictive emotions. By expert here is meant to have the insight into their deeper nature such as what factors give rise to what negative emotion, what are the conditions, what antidotes are to be cultivated or what are the dynamics between the negative emotions? This is what the Kadampa masters meant by becoming an expert.
If one looks at the world of emotions, one knows that it is a world of multiple experiences or events. Within this world of emotional activity and thoughts there is a convergence of opinion on one thing by the great Indian masters. This is that there are two principal underlying emotional types. One is attachment to oneself and as a result of this one has a feeling of attraction towards those whom one considers close to one or those whom one considers loved ones. Because of the attachment to one’s self one also has a notion of separate others. There is a division between self and others and towards others often there is often a strong emotional repulsion which manifests in the forms of hostility, jealousy, envy and so on.
Primarily there are two principal driving forces, attraction towards things associated with oneself and a sense of repulsion towards things that are related with others. What is the dynamic that gives ride to this attachment to self and that associated with the self? Of course there are complex explanations for this phenomenon. As to the question of this dynamic, Nagarjuna suggested the following explanation. He wrote two lines, which read something like:
To a mind clinging on to an object
Why wouldn’t powerful afflictive emotions arise?
He is suggesting that when one examines how one relates to the objects of one’s attachment or anger, one will realize that underlying these powerful emotions is an assumption of that object having some sort of independent objective reality, some status of existence supported in and of itself. Because of this sort of projection of an objective and intrinsic reality to the object then when one relates with that object, one sees certain qualities that one immediately clings to developing powerful emotional reactions.
Therefore if the object did possess such independent, objective, and intrinsic reality then, say in the case of anger, the quality of undesirability would be an absolute characteristic of that object. In that case then there would be an objective ground for one’s emotional reaction. Similarly if the attachment felt for an object was inherent, intrinsic and objective in that object then the quality of desirability that one projects on to the object would be grounded in reality. However this is not the case. Therefore what Nagarjuna suggested was that the belief in some kind of intrinsic and objective existence in an object, the belief that things and events possess some kind of independent and objective reality is what gives rise to the powerful emotional reactions to things and events. So the underlying root factor really is the conception of an objective reality or the independent existence of things and events.
Earlier I spoke about the gap between one’s perception and reality. That discussion is relevant to what I am speaking about here. When one relates to things, when relates to them in a distorted manner. Although the reality of phenomena is the absence of such an intrinsic existence but one tends to believe in the intrinsic reality and identity. In this way it gives rise to powerful emotional reactions and so on. This suggests that this kind of conception of things as possessing some kind of objective, independent existence is a distorted perception and therefore this is said to be the fundamental ignorance. When one refers to ignorance here one is not talking about the simple and mere fact of not knowing but rather a distorted way of perceiving things. One is referring to a misknowing and therefore this kind of misknowledge has to be eliminated by cultivating the right insight and right knowledge. (Break)
Let us ask the question about this underlying root of fundamental ignorance that misconceives the nature of reality as possessing some kind of independent, objective, intrinsic reality that gives rise to all of the negative emotions and thoughts. Is this fundamental ignorance totally inseparable and totally indivisible from the basic nature of one’s mind? Earlier I spoke about how the mere fact of knowing, the mere quality of knowing and luminosity is something that is beginningless and endless. The question is whether this fundamental ignorance because it is inseparable for the continuum of knowing and luminosity, is it also beginningless and endless? One needs to ask this question.
One knows from one’s own personal experience that although when one experiences powerful emotions such as anger or hostility, at that instant the mind is completely dominated by the powerful emotion. But it is also the case that these powerful emotions do not reside in one’s mind all of the time. Simply by virtue of being conscious does not entail that one is always angry or that one is always craving for something. So one knows that regardless of how powerful these may be, they are occasional; sometimes they arise and at other times they subside. This suggests that these powerful emotions are separable in principle for one’s continuum of consciousness.
Similarly in the case of fundamental ignorance although it is very deeply imbedded within one’s psyche it is in principal separable from the basic mind, the simple continuum of luminosity and knowing. This is because it is not the case that one has this kind of belief consciously at all times. What one realizes here is the adventitious character or quality of the afflictive emotions; they are occasional, not ever present. This indicates that they are not inherent or an essential part of one’s mind.
Another point to consider is that so far as the continuum of the basic mind is concerned, the basic quality of one’s experience and mere knowing is concerned, as I mentioned earlier there simply is no factor, no condition that can bring about cessation. Therefore the mind will maintain its continuum infinitely. So there is a fundamental difference between, so far as the continuum of the basic mind and the afflictive emotions are concerned, the continuation of these two phenomena.
Another consideration one needs to bring into one’s thought process here is how the fundamental ignorance, not only is it adventitious and occasional in terms of its occurrence but also it has antidotes. Fundamental ignorance is a misconception of reality as possessing some sort of intrinsic reality therefore the insight into emptiness that negates that kind of objective and independent existence of reality directly counters this fundamental ignorance. So there is an opposing factor or antidote for fundamental ignorance. Furthermore the more one habituates, the more one familiarizes with the insight into emptiness, the deeper one’s experience of emptiness is the more powerful that insight becomes [as an antidote]. At the same time it also undermines the force of the fundamental ignorance. In this way one can see that fundamental ignorance has a powerful antidote. Furthermore fundamental ignorance and its derivative negative emotions, regardless of how powerful they may be, one knows that their power derives more from habituation or repeated experience rather than any grounding in valid considerations, reasoning or in reality.
In contrast the insight into emptiness has a much deeper grounding in valid reasoning and it is derived through rational thought processes. It also has valid grounding in reality therefore the more one cultivates the insight into emptiness the greater becomes its power. At the same time it undermines the force of fundamental ignorance. Moreover the true insight into emptiness is grounded in the simple fact of knowing and luminosity, which maintains its continuum infinitely. Therefore it is also from this point of view more powerful.
When one thinks along these lines one will begin to see at least the possibility that fundamental ignorance and its derivative negative emotions both have their roots in a distorted perception of reality. One will see that they can be eliminated by cultivating their opposing insight [, the view of emptiness]. When one begins to see this possibility then one will be able to envision the possibility of obtaining moksha, true liberation from unenlightened existence, true liberation from suffering. When one can envision this then one can also envision a time when one can say goodbye to the negative emotions and thoughts. Also it gives one more hope and it empowers one with courage.
Otherwise if after the result of reflection if one came to the conclusion that there were no possibility of a way out from this unenlightened existence, that there was no possibility of true cessation then one would truly reach a desperate state of mind. If one concluded that there was no possibility of overcoming the afflictive emotions, no possibility of freedom then one might develop suicidal states of mind because of desperation. In fact if this were the case one could argue that it would be healthier not to reflect upon the nature of suffering, as it would only lead to pessimistic thoughts. In that situation it would be more logical then to seek solace in worldly pleasures like drugs forgetting about the nature of suffering.
This is however not the case. So one appreciates some kind of possibility of moksha then one’s enthusiasm for attaining moksha will increase.
The main point is that by engaging in critical analysis examining the nature of reality and then analyzing whether one’s perception of things and events as possessing some kind of objective, intrinsic existence is valid or not. One comes to realize that one’s perceptions do not accord with reality because the actual reality is emptiness. Once one cultivates this kind of insight then one will be able to appreciate that there is as the result of this cultivation of insight and by means of applying this insight, there is a possibility of attaining cessation of suffering along with the negative emotions. So when this kind of understanding arises then one will be able to develop a genuine aspiration to attain this liberation.
Once one develops this genuine aspiration to attain liberation, freedom from suffering and the unenlightened existence then one will seek the right path, the true path leading to freedom, leading to that cessation. When one speaks about the true path through the context of the Four Noble Truths, the reference to true here is to emptiness; truth here refers to emptiness. So the true path, the essence of the true path must be understood in terms of a direct realization of the highest truth, which is emptiness.
In order for this direct realization of emptiness to take place one must first have cultivated a deeper understanding both intellectual and conceptual of emptiness. In order for this understanding to progress to the higher levels of the understanding of emptiness, it must be complemented with the faculty of single-pointedness. One needs here the higher training in meditation and concentration. Since the key practice of meditation and concentration is the development and enhancement of one’s faculty of mindfulness, it is therefore important first of all to have a firm grounding in the training of morality. The key practice of morality is guarding one’s body, speech and mind from negative conduct.
In other words the true path consists of the three higher trainings. The higher training in morality, which is the initial starting point. By observing a morally disciplined way of life one develops and enhances one’s faculty of vigilance against negative actions. In this way when one’s faculties of vigilance and heedfulness are further developed then one attains the higher training in meditation. When one has the higher training in meditation then one can enhance one’s understanding of emptiness through the union of single-pointedness and insight. In this way one will be able to develop the wisdom of emptiness derived through meditative experience eventually leading to a direct realization of emptiness.
One finds that it is by engaging in the practices and paths of the three higher trainings, training in morality, concentration and wisdom that one actually eliminates and overcomes the afflictive emotions. The question can be asked, “Are there further levels of obscuration that need to be overcome?” Yes, although the manifest levels of the negative emotions may be eliminated through the practices of the three higher trainings still subtle imprints and propensities that were implanted in one’s mind as the result of endless experiences of the negative emotions still remain.
It is these subtle dispositions and imprints that obstruct the individual from obtaining full perfection of the consciousness. Also they obstruct the subtle knowledge of phenomena. As to what these actual obstructions are, whether they are cognitive or not, there is a consensus that this obscuration is that which obstructs one from attaining total realization within a single instant of thought. This is a realization of the unity of the Two Truths, the conventional and ultimate truths. Because of this obstruction one’s direct realization of emptiness is occasional. When one is directly experiencing emptiness then one’s knowledge of the conventional reality is submerged and when one has direct knowledge of conventional reality one’s direct experience of emptiness is submerged. This is what is meant by occasional.
It is also this subtle obscuration that prevents one from fully perfecting…
In so far as the actual path that directly serves as an antidote to eliminating even the subtle imprints and dispositions of the negative emotions is concerned, there is still the wisdom directly realizing emptiness. However here there is a fundamental difference in terms of the complimentary factor. First of all, previously although the wisdom directly realizing emptiness has been attained and the insight has been achieved, this insight was cultivated out of a motivation to attain liberation from samsara, from unenlightened existence.
However here that motivation alone is not adequate, the motivation needs to be altruistic, to be expansive. It is not only the attainment of one’s own liberation but also the elimination of suffering for all sentient beings is the key motivating factor. There is a fundamental difference in terms of the motivation behind the practice and there is also the additional dimension of the accumulation of merit. In order for one’s wisdom realizing emptiness to become powerful enough to serve as an antidote against the subtle imprints, not only need there be an altruistic motivation but also there needs to be the complimentary factor of the accumulation of great merit.
In other words what is required here is the path known as the emptiness endowed with all aspects. The key here is the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings. This aspiration to attain enlightenment is a major factor. The second major factor is that altruistic dimension that it is for the benefit of all beings so when one has this type of altruistic aspiration that embraces the wellbeing of all sentient beings, this in itself has a very powerful, expansive quality. Because of this it also creates a powerful basis for the accumulation of great merit.
When one refers to this altruistic mind one is talking about bodhicitta, the altruistic intention to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is cultivated through a process of exchanging oneself with others, which is the essence of the path. This ideal of exchanging oneself with others, if thought through carefully is an amazing sentiment and an amazing, unimaginable aspiration. When such an amazing and unimaginable aspiration and sentiment serves as a complimentary factor then of course one’s realization of emptiness, of the wisdom of emptiness becomes all the more powerful. As to the relationship between those aspirations and the wisdom of emptiness is concerned, how they become powerful factors for the accumulation of great merit is very clearly explained in Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, Ratnavali.
When one brings all of these points together then one really develops a deeper understanding of the passage I cited at the beginning of this talk, which was the salutation to the Buddha’s enlightened qualities of compassion and wisdom. This was from Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way.
I suspect that many of you may have already heard this before so perhaps to those this may have been boring. I always point this out to others, as I strongly believe this myself that it is although wonderful and precious to have a deep reverence, faith and devotion but there is no guarantee that this faith in the Dharma can be reliable and firm. What is required is a grounding of that faith on a deeper understanding so that one’s faith in the Dharma is genuinely a faith derived through understanding and a conviction. When one has this then the effectiveness of one’s practice will tremendously increase but such faith grounded in understanding can only be developed if one has a basic understanding of the overall framework of the general path of the Buddha’s teaching.
As to the practical methods or steps for cultivating and training one’s mind in this powerful sentiment of bodhicitta, which is the ultimate courage, the source of all perfections and goodness and the source of all admirable sentiment there are two principal approaches in the texts. One is the method known as the Seven Point Cause and Effect approach and the other as found in Santideva’s text is the Exchange and Equalizing of Self with Others.
Question: How can we teach children about afflictive emotions when they are young so that when they grow up they have a good starting point for eliminating these emotions?
Answer: Perhaps one thing that might be of help is to not to so much present the discussion as a spiritual teaching or as a religious practice but rather to simply relate it the child’s own personal experience. Maybe one can find a way of pointing out the destructive nature of these afflictive emotions. For example one could ask the child to imagine what it would feel like to be angry, happy. Is it a disturbing experience? One could also try to relate the child’s own experience with others. For example to suggest that if a family which is always expressing anger, shouting and yelling at each other, is that a good atmosphere or not? This is not to judge others but to simply observe the fact of the destructive nature of strong negative emotions. When one relates these ideas in this way maybe one can communicate the ideas to children.
Children also go through the educational system and know that they have a degree of ignorance in relation to a particular subject. As they learn more and more they discover this level of ignorance. Similarly they can, by recognizing the destructive nature of anger or hostility eventually be able to cultivate some kind of way of dealing with them, diminishing their force.
Question: In the beginning you mentioned briefly skepticism saying that someone who was too skeptical would not recognize the Buddha even if the Buddha were here in person. On the other hand if I am not mistaken it is encouraged to question and check the teachings and the teachers within Buddhism. Could you comment more on this? To what degree is it good to doubt?
Answer: Perhaps there might have been some confusion here with the Tibetan term, which I should have translated as a hardened skeptic as opposed to a mere skeptic. I was referring to an extreme form of skepticism but otherwise you are correct. Generally speaking Buddhist practitioners do need a degree of skepticism, especially at the initial stages when approaching scriptures and the teachings. In a talk in New York I pointed out the importance of the need for skepticism and the need for applying critical reasoning when approaching the teachings of the Buddha.
Within the Mahayana teachings there is an understanding that there is a category of teachings that cannot be taken at their face value; they must be considered as provisional requiring further interpretation. There is another category of teachings, which can be accepted as being definitive. Once one makes this distinction between provisional and definitive teachings the obvious question arises how does one determine the provisionality or definitive nature of a particular teaching. If one has to rely on another scripture for this kind of distinction then that scripture would need another scripture to validate it leading to an infinite regress. Therefore in the final analysis it is through applying one’s critical faculties and developing understanding that one should be able to distinguish between what is provisional and what is definitive.
So obviously the final authority has to come from one’s understanding derived through the application of one’s critical faculties. This of course suggests the need for open skepticism right from the beginning. Therefore I personally believe, especially for Mahayana practitioners a degree of open skepticism is very critical at the beginning stages. Even in relation to the instructions given by the teachers, even the Vinaya scriptures, the monastic ethical texts themselves state that if a particular instruction of one’s teacher does not accord with the basic Dharma teachings, then one must reject them. Similarly in the Sutras it is stated that for instructions given by one’s teacher, those that accord with the general principles of the Dharma should be adopted and those that do not accord with the general principles of the Dharma must not be pursued. However it is important that one should not develop a negative opinion of the teacher simply based on these instructions.
The point is that especially for Mahayana practitioners some degree of skepticism at the initial stages is very crucial. Extreme skepticism is a hardened skepticism that is also combined with self-righteousness which prevents one from seeking the opinion of someone else so much so that it has nothing to do with rational thought processes. This is simply a form of arrogance so that one is reluctant to listen to another person’s opinion. This is the kind of skepticism that is negative and dangerous.
Question: How does one go about skillfully attacking the delusions without falling into the trap of self-hatred?
Answer: I think it depends very much on the fundamental perspective of the practitioner on the nature of the self and its relation to the negative emotions such as greed, anger and so on. Even when one is engaged in the task of attacking the delusions one is doing so because one does not want oneself to be overpowered and controlled by the negative emotions. So one is doing this for one’s own sake, for one’s own interest. This suggests that there is a caring for oneself.
Also it is helpful to reflect upon the teachings on the Buddhanature, which suggest that the essential nature of the mind is pure and luminous. One would also be helpful is to think through how it is important for one when relating to others, especially people who commit negative acts, that as practitioners one should be able to differentiate the person from the act. In this way one recognizes the negativity or suffering nature of the act but because of this one does not judge the person who commits the act. If one thinks through carefully one has this ability to distinguish between the person and the negative act along with the underlying motives that lead to the act.
Similarly one can apply the same principal to oneself. Instead of negatively judging a person in fact one can develop compassion towards that person because that person has committed a negative act because they were under the control of a powerful negative emotion. Instead of negatively judging another one can in fact develop compassion toward them while still recognizing the negativity of the act. Similarly one can again apply the same principal to oneself. When one is under the power of a negative emotion there is a negative dimension to one’s actions. One can acknowledge this negative dimension but at the same time one should be able to distinguish oneself as an individual from a negative state of mind. Thus one is able to distinguish between the person and their mental activity.
Question: Since habituation to emotional afflictions leads to desperation leading to suicidal possibilities and it takes time rehabituate to the insight in emptiness, what can one do to prevent a suicidal person from taking their life?
Answer: The question may be related to the point I made that if it were the case that there is no way out of unenlightened existence then contemplation on the nature of suffering could lead to suicidal tendencies. From the Buddhist point of view suicide is pointless due to the continuation of the consciousness. However if the question is purely from the conventional point of view not taking into account the wider Buddhist teachings this is related to the issue of self-hatred and self-loathing. These seem to be a problematic idea. As I understand the concept of self-hatred, I feel that even though there may be a level where an individual has a degree of hatred towards themselves, but deep down even that kind of self-hatred dynamic arises from an attachment to the self. There is an expectation for oneself and when this expectation is not fulfilled then one tends to judge oneself in an extreme way. This is how I understand the dynamic of self-hatred and self-loathing.
As to the question of suicide one thing that can be said is that so far as committing suicide is concerned as to what might lay ahead if one commits suicide, it is something that is obvious. One will cease to exist. The termination of one’s being is the definite outcome if one commits suicide. But on the other hand if one does not commit suicide then there is the possibility of better days. If one chooses between the two, one is a result one knows with the other result having prospects for betterment. (End of day)
Notes on texts
1. The translation of Santideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is the one by Stephen Batchelor, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
2. The translation of Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way is by Jay Garfield, Oxford University Press.
3. The translation of Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland is by Jeffery Hopkins, Harper & Row.
Transcribed and typed by Phillip Lecso from audiotapes obtained from Tibetan Cultural Center entitled The Kalachakra Preliminary Teachings. I take full responsibility for all mistakes that have occurred, through hearing and writing incorrectly what was taught, for these I apologize. May all be auspicious. May any merit from this activity go to the long life and good health of His Holiness. May all sentient beings quickly attain the state of the Glorious Kalacakra even through these imperfect efforts.