Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten: The origin of relativity

Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten

Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten

3 – Praise of dependent origination. Teaching by Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten in Bodh Gaya, 13-17 December 1996

Part 3 – The origin of relativity

The book that we are looking at is called Tendrup Durpa, Praise of Dependent Origination. Lama Tsongkapa wrote it as a praise to the Buddha for explaining the doctrine of Dependent Origination. So now I am going to explain the book.
First it says: I make homage to Manjushri, I make homage to you who, having seen the fact that creation comes into being dependently.This opening line of this verse is praise to the Buddha, by recollecting that he spoke about dependent origination. It is something which he spoke about, having witnessed it himself. When he is praising the Buddha, he says Buddha spoke about dependent origination, having understood it. He uses this word to ‘understand’ or to ‘know’ pertaining to a Buddha or one who is Enlightened or All Knowing. One can think of one’s own state of knowledge, which is incomplete. Between our present state of knowledge and the state when we will know all things, there are barriers or obscurations. These obscurations are called ‘obscurations to knowing’ or shedjem or nejavarana.

So how do we get rid of the barriers which are between us in our limited state of understanding, and a future state of total understanding? Through again and again meditating on emptiness, motivated by the thought that for the sake of every living being, I must become Enlightened. What I am trying to say is this. If you just meditate on emptiness and it isn’t informed by this motivation that one’s doing it to get Enlightened for the sake of others, then the so called ‘barriers to knowledge’ can not be removed. You need both. So you need this motivation, this Bodhichitta, which is a chitta (thought) of bodhi (Enlightenment).

If you need Bodhicitta in order to remove this barrier or obscuration to a full state of knowing, then it also follows that one needs the cause of Bodhicitta, which is a compassion directed toward all living beings. That compassion also requires one to have a feeling of love and affection for all living beings. Such a love, affection and compassion for all living beings cannot come up in one’s mind unless one has also a feeling of sadness about the whole of this flow of existence, which is the so called renunciation. These are required.

Those worthy beings who have found freedom (Arhants) indeed witness directly the truth of emptiness. But they do not overcome or get rid of the ‘barrier to all knowing’ in their minds, because they have yet to motivate themselves by Bodhichitta, this thought of getting Enlightened. A state of knowledge which knows everything, and is totally free of every cloud or obscuration or barrier, is only to be attained through that motivation. Such awareness of everything isn’t one in which one can know something but forget it. There is no forgetting in that sort of awareness.

So in a word then, this Enlightened being, this Buddha, is a state of awareness which knows all that is to be known and never moves away from knowing all that is to be known. It will always reflect authentically all that is to be known. Even while totally absorbed in awareness of the ultimate nature of things, at one and the same time it knows the surface realities as well. In a word, all barriers to knowing simultaneously the ultimate nature of things and the surface nature of things are gone from such a state of awareness.

Such a state of awareness which we move into, through having removed the clouds or barriers in our own mind, is a removal which will never need to be done again. It’s a one time thing. Once they’re gone one never has to do the work to remove the obscurations again. They are gone forever. That’s why it says, perfectly removed, gone perfectly, and this is why something explained from within such an awareness can never be misleading. The teachings of the Buddha therefore will never mislead us.

Victor, Subduer and Conqueror. These are the words that Tsongkapa uses to praise the Buddha. So Conquerors conquered what or subdued what? They Subdued the four Maras. He is praising the Buddha in terms of having overcome these four Maras. What are the four Maras that Buddha overcame to become Enlightened. He overcame being stuck in this situation that we find ourselves in, stuck in these heaps of aggregates. He overcame being dominated from within by these cankers or klesas. He overcame being governed, as we are, by what happens when we are born. Finally he also overcame the mara which is called DevaPuttra, which is the mara that says ‘let’s give this up’ or ‘I’m too tired, I think I’ll cancel this one today’, that kind of attitude when it comes to spiritual life.

This is the first verse:

I bow to him

Whose insight and speech
Makes him unexcelled as Sage and Teacher
A Victor who realized ultimate truth
Then taught it to us as Dependent Origination

So what about this term ‘dependent arising’. Dependent upon, coming about or arising dependent on an idea, on a word, on certain sets of causes and contingent upon that, thus dependent arising. If you have a seedling coming up it is contingent upon a seed. If there is some smoke rising up, it is contingent or dependent upon a fire. A wheel is contingent upon the parts of the wheel. I don’t just mean wheels, I mean anything in the universe, it’s all the same, it’s dependently arisen. And contingent on projection by the mind, as for example ‘over there’ and ‘over here’, are contingent upon the actual projection by the mind. There is no ‘over there’ unless projected. There is no ‘over here’ unless projected. So contingency is projection. Thus every phenomenon is dependent arising, something that comes up contingently.

The opposite is that there is nothing anywhere that has any essence because everything is only riding under the power of something else. So miss-knowledge as he translates it, or ignorance or bewilderment (it’s in the next line here) means a positive apprehension of something being independently there. The opposite to something that comes about dependently. So what is our work? Our work is to rub out this ignorance that is insidious and that apprehends the independent essence in things which is not really there. And why is that our work? Why is that so important? Because it is the very root of all the suffering in this transitory world.

Chandrakirti, the great Indian writer, wrote many years ago that ‘every shortcoming, every fault leads back to the view of the perishable aggregate’. That is another word for the bewilderment or ignorance which apprehends everything, in a universe where everything arises in dependence on other things, as carrying an independent inherent essence or existence. That is why you get the first of the so called 12 links of dependent origination of lifetimes. That is why you get the first avidya, or ignorance. If one has that, then one is led into certain sorts of behavior. When one has been led into those sorts of behaviors, a karma or residual impression is left in one’s mind stream. Craving and attachment at death time bring forth the residual power left by that action and propel one to take yet another suffering form of life. This impulse to come forth in another form of life leads us to another rebirth with all the problems it brings. And thus you get the other parts in that Dependent Origination..

When you’re born you have a body and a mind. As you develop, you develop senses. As you have senses you contact objects. From the contact with the senses one gets different sorts of feelings. Thus the whole of reality comes forth. So you have the opportunity to prevent coming forth in any form of life by removing the causes, which is to say by removing that ignorance. When that fundamental ignorance is removed, the craving and incredible attachment which hangs one onto the heaps which define us is gone out of the mental world.

In other words, whatever the form of life we might find ourselves in, no matter how good it might seem to us, even a life which we might consider celestial, one should never allow oneself to think that this is as good as it can be. Beyond that, there is something better, which is freedom. And for such freedom to be experienced one has to identify this ignorance which one has within ones mind, and remove it from oneself. In order to have interest in something that good, something better even than the finest sort of life one could imagine, one has first to open one’s mind to all the problems which accompany any sort of life, no matter how good it seems to be.

Having turned one’s mind to the problems in any life, one then turns one’s mind to the root of those problems, which is this ignorance or apprehension of essences in a universe which is in fact totally dependent-arisen. So is it true to say there is no freedom, that the experiences that one has within life is all there can be? In fact this stream of life, lifetime after lifetime, is something that one can become free from, that one can free oneself from. The path to that freedom is only to be traced or found in the removal of the cankers or the klesas one finds within ones mind. Those afflictive emotions or klesas are themselves only to be removed, and the path to freedom therefore is only to be found, by removing the ignorance which apprehends essence where there is no essence.

That is why it says here in this praise by Tsongkapa that you, Buddha, are superior to any other teacher because you identified this as the root of the problem and spoke about methods to deal with it. Problems are to be dealt with and suffering is to be removed by removing cankers or klesas or afflictive emotions which are their cause. This is the Enlightened Being’s teaching. In that sense, the teaching of this Enlightened Being or this Buddhadharma, is qualified in that way. It’s in these teachings that one finds it set forth clearly, that one’s enemy is indeed these inner cankers or klesas and these are the main things that are opposing one. The removal of these is what one should put one’s energies towards.

I think we can see without much difficulty how our hatred upsets us personally. But it’s harder to see how a canker like attachment is our enemy and hurts us. It is governed by those driving needs that we may find ourselves actually robbing somebody, that we may find ourselves sexually abusing somebody. It’s through those needs that one is led into those sorts of self destructive behaviors.

In general our needs come up relative to the things we like or want. In other words things that look wantable or attractive to us. Other things look unattractive or unwanted, and it’s relative to that sort of awareness that our hatreds begin to grow. The enemy is these cankers.

I recently heard a story which happened in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. There was an elderly lady and two younger women. The younger women went to the older woman and said ‘could you lend us some money’, and they took a loan for some particular reason from her. Then later on the lady said ‘would you give my money back’ and they killed her so they didn’t have to repay the money. They put the body in the back of a car but unfortunately on the way to the place they were to hide it, the car crashed and the body came tumbling out on the road, and of course they were caught.

So if you think of this type of behavior, what does it all meet back to? It was the needs that those two women felt. They had to have something that caused them to do such things. So when they were caught they took them back to where they lived, and they found that they had already murdered both their husbands earlier too, and had stuffed them in the closet in the house. Such can people be driven. When they went back to their roots, so to say, they found that they had already murdered before. The Chinese administration executed those two ladies. You see how it all goes back to needs.

We see the behavior in the whole of the world as governed by needs and hatreds. When you look at what is causing problems, when you try to find out what’s behind it, you come back to these cankers and klesas in the mind. So if one can identify these klesas and cankers as the big problem, then one can turn on them and eliminate them from one’s mind, and through that one can find peace.

If you find that you’ve come down with some terrible disease, and then you find out that there is a cure, you’re incredibly happy and you go rushing off to take the cure. But you know, even if you take a cure for a disease, you only live for a while, you cannot stop your death. If one can cure oneself of these cankers then it’s not just well-being or good health, for some duration of time, but one has a state of well being which is solid, a true ongoing never ending state of well-being.

Still on the first line of the second verse, ‘Ignorance itself is the very root of all the troubles in this transitory world’. In this way then, this ignorance is the ground of all of these klesas or cankers. In the next two lines it says, ‘You who understood that, who reversed it and got rid of it, then taught the fact that the entire universe operates on the principle of dependent origination’.

Dependent origination, that understanding being the understanding that pushes against and gets rid of ignorance. And thus it is said in the next verse, ‘How could it be possible that the wise would not understand that this teaching of dependent origination is the essential thing in all that you taught’. Here, ‘how could it be’ means that those who are wise will zero in on this teaching as being the lynch pin or the very central point in all that the Enlightened Being spoke. What it is saying is that the great message of the Buddhist teaching is the message of emptiness, the understanding of emptiness which conveyed by the Enlightened One’s teaching of dependent origination.

What it means then is that those who are wise will understand that the thing the Enlightened One was trying get across was this understanding of emptiness, and understanding of how things come about dependent upon other things. When it says, ‘how could it be possible’, it’s saying ‘it couldn’t be possible, the wise will definitely come to know that’.

The best means we have available to deal with the root of problems, these cankers that dominate us and govern our behavior, is the contemplation of the emptiness of inherent existence. In essence such an understanding of emptiness is best approached through the contemplation of this reality, that everything in the universe is a dependent origination.

Historically Tsongkapa is said to have come to the understanding that this is the linchpin or the central doctrine of the Buddha. Having gone to Olga in southern Tibet, and spent many many years in retreat making prostration after prostration, offering symbolic universe after symbolic universe, finally came to the realization that is presented here. The understanding of the middle way that Tsongkapa achieved through that retreat was an understanding which is also explained by a number of Indian pandits such as Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti.

So as it says in the next verse:

Such being the case, who could discover
Anything even yet more wonderful
To sing your praises, oh Buddha
Than this your teaching of Dependent Origination
That something comes into being contingent on other things
And that something is therefore totally devoid of any essence
And that these two are different ways of saying the same thing
What could be more wonderful a way to sing your praises
Than by saying that you taught this

Whatever depends upon conditions is empty of every intrinsic reality. What excellent instructions could be more amazing than this. That something created is created dependent on causes and conditions is itself the best reason to show that something created is totally devoid of any intrinsic reality. What more amazing instructions could there be. Since smoke is produced from fire, if you take away the fire you take away smoke. The same with the wheel, if you take out all the parts of the wheel it is empty of wheel. And similarly with awareness. Without awareness labeling or projecting the things which one is aware of, one doesn’t have the things which are contingent upon that awareness.

It is the same with ‘over there’ and ‘over here’. With ‘over there’ you need an ‘over here’, and for ‘over here’ to be, you need an ‘over there’. They depend upon each other to exist. If ‘over here’ were carrying some nature, some essence that makes it ‘over here’, and then I went ‘over there’, I’d take that essence of ‘over here’ with me and then even when ‘over there’ I’d be ‘over here’. But it doesn’t carry any essence, any nature of it’s own. It gets it’s nature, it’s essence-nature, totally in dependence on an ‘over there’ which allows this ‘over here’ to be. And because of lacking in essence and being totally contingent, the reality as we know it can operate. I’m ‘over here’ and you’re ‘over there’. But from your side, it is the other way around. Since from your side you are ‘over here’ and from my side, I am ‘over here’, if ‘over here’ is anything but a projection, or if it has any essence that makes it ‘over here’ in and of itself, then ‘over here’ is going to be in both places at the same time. If this were the case, you couldn’t have an ‘over there’, and it would all collapse.

There is no absolute height either. There is no ‘long’ and ‘short’. There is no essence in ‘long’ and no essence in ‘short’ that makes either ‘long’ or ‘short’ actually long or short. Relative to ‘short’ you have a ‘long’ and visa versa. There is no essence to long or short of any size, there is no absolute size. Same with ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’. That’s good relative to something which is unpleasant but relative to some thing better, it’s not good. Similarly with something unpleasant. Relative to something good it’s unpleasant but relative to something worse it’s not bad.

Look at somebody you hate in the sense of somebody who is an enemy or somebody you loves and who is a friend. If ‘beloved’ or ‘hated’ were an essence or an absolute something in those objects of hatred or love, then relative to the one you hate, those who like that person can not like them because there’s a hate-able essence or hate-able absolute there. Or similarly with someone who one loves. There would have to be something essentially lovable there, but others might hate that person. So one can see then that is just relative to one’s own projection.

One then may say here, ‘then everything is just what one thinks’, but this is not the case. For example, if you suddenly get startled because you think you see a snake, but in fact it is a rope, you just think it’s is a snake but it is not a snake. But if there is a snake and you think it’s a snake then it is a snake, just thinking it doesn’t make it so. You see, this rope doesn’t function or perform the way that snakes perform. Snakes perform the way that snakes perform. Just thinking that a rope is a snake doesn’t make it a snake.

This is true for another reason also. Another authoritative awareness will damage the thought that the rope is a snake. If, for example, later on when you turn the lights on another awareness comes, the awareness or thought that it’s a rope, and that thought of it being a rope is a stronger awareness it will cancel the previous thought of snake. The first thought of snake can’t stand up in front of more valid awareness of rope. On that account just thinking it’s something is not what is meant by this doctrine. In other words, just thinking it alone with no other more authoritative thought or awareness hindering that thought, just doesn’t stand up. It is not valid. What this comes down to is that there is nothing in the entire universe that is not a dependent origination, and thus everything in the entire universe is empty of any absolute existence, any inherent existence, any essence.

If one’s mind absorbs into this long enough at a deep enough level, then slowly slowly will come the awareness which is indeed a direct witness to this fact. At early stages of meditation, when one is trying to accumulate necessities to mediate, when one is in a mediation which is sort of moving into it, but not quite there, one doesn’t directly witness this reality or truth. But then, when one has a vision, and the content of that vision is indeed this emptiness, those clouds which are called tongpa (tib.) are eliminated. If such a vision is informed or motivated by the thought that ‘I must become Enlightened’, this Bodhichitta, then such a vision is called a vision in or of the Great Vehicle. If it’s not impelled or motivated by that, it’s a vision in or of the Small Vehicle.

If you want to include in your spiritual life Tantric practices, then the practices which lead to a vision of emptiness, and the practices which lead to such a motivation of Bodhicitta are absolutely required. If the inspiration for doing these things doesn’t meet back to the thought that ‘I must be Enlightened for the sake of others’, then regardless of what the spiritual practice is, it can not be called a spiritual practice of the Great Vehicle.

If one does not include in ones practice the feeling of sadness for the whole of the experiences of an ongoing stream of existences, the understanding of emptiness and the thought to be Enlightened for the benefit of others, then though one thinks one is doing Tantric practice, one isn’t.

In other words if you want to include in your spiritual life Tantric practice, make sure you include in your spiritual life the practice of a feeling of sadness at the experiences in life, the understanding of emptiness and the thought of Enlightenment.