7 H.H.Dalai Lama: Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: According to Bhavavineka, it is perceived that the insight into the no-self of phenomena is more related to the attainment of omniscient states, than attainment of liberation from samsara.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: According to Bhavavineka, it is perceived that the insight into the no-self of phenomena is more related to the attainment of omniscient states, than attainment of liberation from samsara.

7 His Holiness The Dalai Lama: Commentary on The Precious Garland “Ratnavali” by Nagarjuna, UCLA Los Angeles June 5-8, 1997.

H. H. Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna now refers to the 12-link chain of Dependent Origination (pratitya-samutpada). This doctrine is one of Buddhism’s core concepts, thought to have been taught by the historical Buddha himself. It describes the way existence characterized by suffering comes into being. Essentially, it is the Buddhist conception of how Samsara, the world of birth and death, the mundane world we live in, “works.”

Dependent Origination is envisioned as a chain of causes and conditions with 12 links: the fundamental state of being is (1) ignorance, which gives rise to (2) volition, which conditions (3) consciousness, which is joined to (4) name-form (the psycho-physical entity); then the (5) six-senses are activated, and they come into (6) contact with objects of desire, and as a result, (7) feeling, (8) craving, and (9) grasping arise; all of these factors cause and further condition the (10) becoming of life; and all that is becoming is subject to (11) birth, (12) old age and death.

According to Dependent Origination, all persons are interrelated through these causes and conditions, so there is no independent self-being or self-essence to be seized.

Early Buddhism accepted the selflessness of the person but not of phenomena since they promoted the idea of “dharmas” (or things) as pieces of existence that were atom-like particles. While there was some difference of opinion within the Madhyamaka school and Mahayana early on, in general the Mahayana branch of Buddhism acknowledges the selflessness, or emptiness, or both the person and phenomena.

The Dalai Lama launches into a discussion of the degrees of subtlety of these two selflessnesses or emptinesses. As far as I understand this discussion proceeds within the context of consciousness, which in Madhyamaka consists of three levels: gross (or coarse), subtle, and extremely subtle. Gross consciousness is limited to the senses. Subtle consciousness is cognition and the mind dealing with concepts, forming judgments, etc. Extremely subtle consciousness is nonconceptual in nature and is said to be “clear light”.

There’s also a reference to Sravaka and Pratyeka-buddhas. In early Buddhism these were considered as different stages of the path. The Sravaka or “voice-hearers” are disciples. This is the level of “stream entry”; they have entered the stream that flows to nirvana. Pratyeka-buddhas are private or lone buddhas, who realize awakening on an individual or solitary basis. In Mayahana, Sravaka and Pratyeka-buddhas are viewed more as separate vehicles or ways, and are contrasted with the Bodhisattva, which is considered to be a higher path. The Bodhisattva vehicle also has various levels or stages (bhumi).

With that out of the way, we wrap up the morning session of the second day of the teachings.

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama

Verse 31 reads:

Depending upon a mirror,
the reflection of one’s face
is seen, but it does not
ultimately exist at all.

In verse 35, The Precious Garland argues that without the existence of the physical and mental aggregates, the natural sense of “I” cannot arise. In the next verses, Nagarjuna explains why:

With these three phases mutually causing each other,
the circle of samsara whirls around,
like the circle (formed by a whirling torch)
without beginning, middle or end.

But that (samsaric process) is not attained from itself,
from something else, or from both; nor is it attained in the three times.
Therefore, (for one who knows this) the fixation on “I” ceases,
and hence also karma and birth.

[The three times: past, present, and future]

True understand of no-self of person requires a deep understanding of phenomena. This is because the natural thought of “I” or “I am” cannot arise independently of the physical and mental aggregates. Therefore, what Nagarjuna is suggesting is that so long as one subscribes to a belief in selfhood, there is no possibility of arriving at true insight into emptiness.

This passage seems to reinforce the Madhyamaka-Prasangika [a sub-school of the Madhyamaka; also refers to the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argumentation used by the Madhyamaka schools]. So far as the true selflessness is concerned there is no real difference in terms of subtlety. The difference really lies in the difference of the object in which the two selves are presented, no-self of person is the emptiness of the person. No-self of phenomena is the emptiness of phenomena. So far as the selfhood that is being negated, there is no real difference between selfhood of person and selfhood of phenomena. And this difference reinforces the Madhyamaka position against, or in contrast, to other interpretations of Nagarjuna, where there is an acceptance of the real substantive difference between the no-self of person and the no-self of phenomena, in that the no-self of person is understood in terms of negation of self as a substantial reality rather than self as devoid of intrinsic reality and there is no-self of phenomena  – it is posited differently. So it seems that this passage from The Precious Garland supports the Prasangika, in as far as the two selves are concerned, there is no difference in subtlety.

Of course, there are very important commentators of Nagarjuna, such as Bhavavineka, a Madhyamaka philosopher who read Nagarjuna in a different way.  For example, Bhavavineka accepts that there is no real substantive difference between no-self of person and no-self of phenomena, but there is a difference in subtlety. There is also a difference of subtlety of the two forms of grasping – grasping at selfhood of person and grasping at selfhood of phenomena – given that one of the implications of that kind of position is to accept that the root of unenlightened existence, the root of samsara, is really the grasping at the selfhood of the person, not the selfhood of phenomena. Therefore, in order to obtain liberation from samsara, we need to gain insight into the no-self of phenomena. According to Bhavavineka, it is perceived that the insight into the no-self of phenomena is more related to the attainment of omniscient states, than attainment of liberation from samsara.

The Chinese government recently passed a new law that bans Tibetan lamas, or monks, from reincarnating without Chinese government approval. The Chinese government wants to have the right to approve reincarnations of living Buddhas or senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism.

This is so ridiculous, and utterly petty, on the part of the Chinese. You would think a world super-power might have better things to do than go around “approving” reincarnations and bickering with a 76 year-old monk. Yet, there may be a method to their madness. After all, it does divert attention away from the Chinese government’s ongoing campaign in Tibet of ethnic cleansing through population transference and their reign of violence and terror.

The ruling has forced the Dalai Lama to make a formal pronouncement on the subject of his reincarnation. He says that when he reaches the age of ninety, he will decide for himself about the matter.

Despite his well-constructed argument in favor of reincarnation, logical from the particular point of view of Tibetan Buddhism, I would not be a bit surprised if personally the Dalai Lama didn’t have a more practical approach to the subject. For one thing, he is an astute scholar of Buddhist philosophy and he must realize that “reincarnation” does not comport with Buddhist teachings, which deal with the subject of “rebirth,” a somewhat different sort of thing. But I think his “reincarnation statement” is more of a political statement, using reincarnation as an expedient. He may be retired as head of state, but he is in no way removed from politics. As long he is Beijing’s rhetorical crosshairs, he’s in the game.

Were it not for the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama might have made a pronouncement of another kind. Several years ago, during a visit to the U.S., he made quite a point of denying his status as a “living Buddha.” It was a courageous thing to do. For many years, it has been the Dalai Lama’s special status that alone has held the Tibetan community together. By undercutting the mystique surrounding him, and which he is reportedly uncomfortable with, he gambled that his people and the world would see and accept him for the human being he is, and not as some sort of living god in the way others and his tradition has proclaimed. In this way, he helped move his culture in a more modern direction.

I suspect that Tenzin Gyatso would much prefer having a reasonable and fair dialogue with the Chinese over the issues, but since, from the Chinese side, it doesn’t seem possible, he feels compelled to perpetuate some of these old myths and superstitions. By putting a “final” decision off for fourteen years, he buys some time, for the situation to become diffused, or perhaps for both sides to grow up. But, don’t be surprised if someday, he ends up disavowing or radically changing this reincarnation message.

In the meantime, the Tibetans have the right to believe in any damn fool thing they wish. The Chinese have taken everything else from them. You can’t begrudge them trying to hold on to their idea of reincarnation.