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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Causation is something that can be maintained on the conventional level but not in the ultimate sense.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Causation is something that can be maintained on the conventional level but not in the ultimate sense.

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

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama

We will begin the session. First, I would like to thank the members of the Chinese Sangha for their recitation . . . So we begin the questions.

Previously questions were submitted on pieces of paper, which the translator reads in English and then in Tibetan. Several of the questions concern virtuous and non-virtuous actions in which the Dalai Lama basically repeats the points about these kinds of actions he has already made in the previous session.

The next question deals with religious tolerance, in which he makes the following points: 1) He feels that is more appropriate for people to follow the religious tradition of their own society or culture, but there can be exceptions to that; 2) if someone does decide to change religious traditions, this should be done only after careful consideration; 3) the differences between traditions especially between Buddhism and other traditions, reflect the richness of spiritual diversity and should be a cause for greater admiration; 4) it is possible in the beginning for a person to be able to follow both the Buddhist path and the Judeo-Christian path, but at some point one must choose between one or the other, since the Buddhist concept of emptiness and the Judeo-Christian concept of a creator god do not really fit together; 5) this last point may hold for people in the Buddhist tradition also, since there are some concepts from the various schools that, also, do not fit together. But no matter what, one should never become overly critical of religious tradition different from your own.

Q: How can we maintain faith when so many of the lamas and teachers misbehave?

A: If one is able to cultivate a faith that is grounded in a personal understanding, then there is no possibility of developing such a faith towards a lama or teacher who misbehaves.

It is very important when you relate to someone who is a dharma-teacher to use your critical faculty to subject that person to close scrutiny, so that you are aware that if not all the qualifications that are commented on in the scriptures are not found in that person, at least most of them are found in that individual.

Sometimes people select a dharma-teacher or choose a particular tradition during a very low period in their personal life. When that happens, when someone chooses a person or a tradition because they have a need to lean on someone or they lack confidence or self-esteem, then there is a real vulnerability for abuse and when that dependence is placed on someone, given that you are not really able to use the critical facility, then there is scope for abuse and disappointment.

Often when it comes to choosing a spiritual path or a teacher, our tendency is to be hasty and take on anything that comes near you, like a dog who will eat any food that comes its way and that is not how we should approach the question of choosing the dharma or a teacher.

As I say to members of the media, that they should have as long noses as possible, sort of sniffing around [laughter] and also this is true for the students-you should be able to sniff around so that you can see from both the front and the back. Sometimes what happens is that things may look very impressive from the front, but from the back they may be sort of empty, just hollow. [laughter]

If a teacher is able to maintain a good kind of integrity, then, of course, that person is worthy of your admiration and trust.

Judging the integrity of a teacher should be approached in the context of the three higher trainings on morality, meditation and wisdom or insight. That is what the Buddha taught in the Tripitaka, the Three Spiritual Collections . . . So, this means that since I am also a teacher, you should subject me to such investigation as well. [laughter]

Q: What is the quickest and easiest way to realize selflessness or no-self?

Both the Dalai Lama and the audience laugh, but it soon tapers off into a rather long pause.

A: Let us be serious, now. Even though I cannot claim to have any high levels of realization in relation to the understanding of selflessness, the little realization that I have is a product of effort over thirty years of time and also –

It was difficult to follow the translator here. Even after listening to the tape repeatedly, I am unsure exactly who the Dalai Lama via the translator is referring to here, whether it is himself or some other lama.The Milarepa story below seems separate from this.

Translator: Tenzin Gyatso [?], after he met with [? name unclear] and he had a long discussion with him  . . . later, he happened to write a biography of [?] and in it Master [?] mentions . . . that the realizations that he attained were a result of intensive effort and commitment of over a period of forty years, and now he’s reached . . . a point where he is on the threshold of gaining a high liberation.

The Dalai Lama says something to the translator in Tibetan. There is another long pause. Silence. The Dalai Lama then begins to cry. He wipes his eyes. The entire hall is completely hushed. The Dalai Lama muttering to himself, continues to wipe his eyes.

Translator: His Holiness was saying that Milarepa [one of the most revered teachers in the history of Tibetan Buddhism], when Milarepa was giving his last instructions to one of his foremost disciples, sGam-go-pa, he showed his behind to him – ah, he showed the calluses on his behind that were the result of his long sitting in meditation and said, “Look that this! This is what I’ve endured. This is the mark of my practice.” And this is how, you must remember that the realization of dharma requires effort and commitment –

The Dalai Lama breaks in, speaking for the first time in English:

So don’t think easiest, best, cheapest!

The rest of his comment is drowned out by applause.

[Back to Tibetan and the translator]: What one Tibetan master [? name unclear] said is very true. He said that someone who, at the initial stage is so enthusiastic about the practice that he or she doesn’t have time to eat properly, but this lasts only three or four days, then they are distracted and go on to something else and loses interest – such a person expects to have results immediately, but then loses interest – such a person will never achieve anything. therefore, it is important to always maintain a steady flow of effort, a steady flow, like a stream, always continuous.

[The Dalai Lama in English]: You agree? [audience applauds] That’s good!

Two days later, at the very end, following the empowerment ceremony on the last day, the Dalai Lama offered his only other words spoken in English: “I hope that you will reflect deeply on these teachings, so that the next time I come you won’t have to ask about best, fastest, easiest.”

In this section, there is mention of higher and lower rebirths. Some readers may not accept the idea of rebirth in the Buddhist context, or at least may have doubts about it. In those cases, the reader may wish to view to interpret the teachings in this way: lower rebirths correspond to having a low condition of life in the present time, a state of life dominated by suffering, and higher rebirths would correspond to higher conditions of life, a state of life where one experiences a certain amount of freedom from suffering and liberation from the destructive afflictions of the mind. The idea behind the doctrines discussed here work just as well with this sort of viewpoint.

Let’s return to the text:

Having listened to this Dharma
that puts an end to suffering,
the undiscerning, afraid of the fearless state,
are terrified because they do not understand.

In this verse, The Precious Garland states that in actual fact emptiness is the state of fearlessness. Therefore, one should not develop a sense of fear towards it, rather a sense of joy. The reason why the childish feel terrified, sees emptiness as an object of fear, is because of their ignorance. When one doesn’t understand the nature of emptiness, it becomes a source of fear.

In the next verse, The Precious Garland is arguing with the Buddhist essentialists, particularly the Vaibhasika’s [a “Hinayana” school] who maintain that the attainment of nirvana, on one hand constitutes cessation of the continuum of consciousness. So The Precious Garland is arguing that if this is the understanding of nirvana or liberation, then since you do not fear the concept of total cessation of the individual in the continuum of consciousness, then how can you be afraid of the concept of emptiness? Emptiness, or nirvana, from the Madhyamaka standpoint is the state where all the negative afflictions of the mind are purified or calmed within the state of emptiness of the mind. Therefore, if the Vaibhaskika’s maintain that nirvana or liberation constitutes a total cessation, then why are they afraid of the notion of emptiness, where all the afflictions of the mind are eliminated?

In liberation there is neither Self nor aggregates:*
if you are intent upon that kind of liberation,
why are you not pleased with the teaching that
refutes Self and aggregates here as well?

*[Aggregates: Skt. Skandhas; lit. heap or bundle – the five aggregates that make up the individual: corporeal form, feeling, perception, impulse, and consciousness.]

The point about liberation where there is no self or aggregates is that because according to the Madhyamaka understanding, nirvana constitutes the total elimination of all the delusions of the mind within the sphere of emptiness, so from this view of nirvana, no duality can be maintained. Therefore, no self or aggregates or perception can be maintained. All the dualities are calmed or dissolved into a state of emptiness. This is further developed in the next verse:

Nirvana is not even non-existent,
so how could it be existent?
Nirvana is said to be the cessation
of the notions of existence and non-existence.

So this develops the Mahayana understanding of the concept of Dharmakaya, which is the state where all the dualities dissolve into the sphere of emptiness. All forms of dualities, such are subject and object, such as aggregates, and also emptiness, itself, is dissolved here – so therefore, the Madhyamaka school talks about the emptiness of emptiness, as well.

In brief, a nihilistic view
is the belief that karma has no effect,
it is a nonmeritorious, and (it leads to)
low rebirth; it is said to be a false view.

In brief, a realist view
is the belief that karma has an effect.
it is meritorious, and (it leads to)
high rebirth; it is said that it is a proper view.

Through knowledge, one subdues the (notions of) existence
and non-existence, and one thus transcends sin and merit.
Hence, one is liberated from high and low rebirths –
this is what the holy one says.

Here, The Precious Garland is responding to a possible objection against the Madhyamaka concept of emptiness, because this concept rejects any independent existence or objective reality, it is possible for someone to understand it to entail [the rest of this sentence was lost when the tape was changed] . . . the rejection of independent existence does not imply the rejection of everything at the conventional level, therefore it is not a nihilistic view. A nihilistic view involves the total rejection, even in the conventional sense of things and events. Nihilism involves a rejection of the very principle of dependent origination and causation.

Then it [the text] states that sometimes it is possible, because of the principles of dependent origination and causation that someone may infer that there may be some intrinsic essence or some kind of objective reality.

Nagarjuna accepts the possibility that such absolutist interpretations of dependent origination can function as a basis to act in a positive way, thus creating karma for attaining a higher rebirth. Therefore even virtous actions can take place as a result in such a belief. However, if one understand these principles in terms of conditionality with no objective inherently real basis, then one will be able to not only undercut the commitment of negative actions, but also the very karma that gives rise to rebirth in the cyclic existence. Thus the understanding of emptiness acts as an antidote to undermine the process of rebirth in the cyclic existence. When dependent origination is viewed in the correct way, then that understanding can act as a counterforce against both the extremes of nihilism and absolutism.

Seeing that production has a cause,
one transcends (the notion) of non-existence.
Seeing that cessation has a cause,
one does not accept (the notion of) existence.

Because things come into being as a result of causes and conditions, one can transcend the nihilistic tendency to accept that they are non-existence. Because cessation comes into being as a result of causes and conditions, one transcends the possibility of a defined existence.

In this selection from my manuscript, the Dalai Lama delves into a heavy subject: the nature of reality. He discusses why, if things are deemed to be unreal, they seem to us very real. He also provides some crucial guidance about how we should understand emptiness (sunyata).

One question that can be raised is, if things and events do posses a production caused by their conditionality, then what is the nature of that cause and what is the relationship between that cause and the thing caused? The nature of the cause is then examined in terms of whether it is simultaneous to the result or if it is prior to the result, or if it is distinct from the thing that is produced. Of course, such forms of analysis is taking place from the perspective of ultimate analysis. So a cause that is prior to the object cannot be said to produce an effect, because at the point where the effect takes place, the preceding cause has already ceased and if the cause is said to simultaneous, again, it cannot be causation because simultaneous events cannot cause simultaneous effects and so on.

Therefore [this verse] reads that:

A cause that occurs before (its effect) or simultaneously (with it)
is not really a cause at all,
because (such causes) are not accepted conceptually,
and production is not accepted ultimately.

So this suggests that causation is something that can be maintained on the conventional level but not in the ultimate sense. What this suggests is the understanding of causation in terms of mere conditionality, in terms of dependent origination. So, in [the next] verse, The Precious Garland then gives us two examples of dependent phenomena – one is dependent in terms of dependent designation and one is dependent in terms of dependent causation:

Where this is, that arises,
just as when there is ‘long,’  there is ‘short.’
When this is produced, that arises,
just as, when a lamp’s flame is produced, light arises.

Where there this is, that arises,” – this is the general principle of dependent origination. The examples are, just as there is long there is short. This is an example of dependent designation. The idea is that when we talk about something being long or short, there is no independent existing longness or shortness, rather the very concept of “long and short” are relative concepts, and it is only in relation to certain frames of reference that we can maintain notions of long and short.

Then the next two lines gives an example of dependent origination in terms of causation. Through understanding of dependent origination, one can understand the existence of the reality of phenomena can only be maintained at the level of conventional truth and only in terms of dependence upon other factors. Nothing, no event enjoys a status of existence that is its own, that is autonomous.

But when there is no short,
there is no intrinsically existent long.
and when a lamps (flame) is not produced,
the light also does not arrive.

Seeing that an effect arises from a cause,
one does not claim that (causality) is nonexistent,
having provisionally accepted (causality) in accord with
the way it arises for the world from conceptual fabrication.

(Ultimate causality is) refuted; it would be absolutistic
to accept that it has not arisen from conceptual fabrication
and that it is truly real, just as it is. (But its ultimate reality) is not (accepted).
Thus, not relying on the two (extremes), one is liberated.

A form that is viewed from afar
is seen clearly by those nearby;
if a mirage were actually water,
why would those nearby not see it?

The Precious Garland entertains the question that if it is the case that things and events are in the final analysis devoid of intrinsic reality and they are empty of independent reality or essence, how is it that to our perceptions there is this multiplicity of appearances that seem to enjoy some sort of uniqueness and distinctiveness in their existences? The following verses address that problem.

If the way in which we see the world reflects the true nature of reality, then the deeper we probe the nature of reality, the clearer the perception of the world should becomes. However, that is not the case. Just as a mirage appears from far away, but the closer you come the mirage disappears, similarly with the perception of the world, the closer you come to the nature of reality, the more untenable it becomes.

As in the case of a mirage
those far away who (view) the world
see it to be real just as it is,
but being signless, it is not seen by those nearby.

In [this] verse, it says “those far away.” Far away here is a reference to our ordinary perceptions of the world, which is far away from the actual nature of reality. As we approach close, that sort of perception is dismantled because the actual nature of reality is “signless.” These conceptual apparitions that we create do not really reflect the nature of reality.

A mirage seems to be water,
but it is not water, nor is it real.
Likewise, the aggregates seem to be the Self,
but they are not the Self, nor are they even real.

(Seeing) a mirage, one might think,
This is water,” and then go up to it;
if one still grasped (at the water, thinking,)
That water isn’t here,” it would be quite stupid.

In [these] verses, we see that when one first imagines the mirage to be water, then you approach and find that there is no water, you think that there was water before but there isn’t any now. That is the wrong way of thinking. Rather, one should conclude that the initial perception of there being water was a mistake. Similarly, when one arrives at an understanding of emptiness, one should not feel that the intrinsic reality or essence that existed before has been eliminated or in some sense shown to be non-existent. Rather one should understand that the intrinsic reality that one perceives to begin with, is not there at all.

The reference in [this last] verse resonates a form of argument that we find in the Madhyamaka Kavatara [“Entrance into the Middle Way] where Candrakirti argues that if one’s understanding of emptiness is that emptiness negates the intrinsic reality, then the transcendent awareness of the Aryan Beings [This is a reference to those who have already become enlightened; “Aryan” literally means “noble.”] would be a cause for the destruction of the empirical world. therefore, one denies it. So, it is the same kind of argument. http://theendlessfurther.com/tag/the-precious-garland/