1 – Praise of dependent origination. Teaching by Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten in Bodh Gaya, 13-17 December 1996.
Part 1 – The causes of Suffering
The following is taken from teachings by Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten at Root Institute, Bodhgaya on 13th through 17th of Dec. 1996. The teachings were translated into English by the tireless Ven. Gareth Sparham.
Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobten
A while ago, the people from this center asked me to give a talk here. I didn’t know what to teach, so I asked the Dalai Lama and he said ‘you should teach the praise of Dependent Origination’, which was composed in the late 14th century by Tsongkapa and is a praise of the historical Buddha. So what does this praise of the Buddha boil down to? It is this: Buddha, I praise you, because you explained how anything which comes into being is dependent on other things, and is totally devoid of any essence.
All of us want things to go well for ourselves. We all want to be happy and none of us wants any problems. We all have to make that happiness for ourselves and bring about a future in which there are no problems. So you see, we have either future happiness for ourselves or a possible future which is problematic or suffering. These will not come about from nothing, they will come about in dependence upon what we do. And thus one sees a dependency between what we will experience in our future, and the causes that we create prior to that.
By this I am not trying to say that our material possessions, the external things that we use, are totally irrelevant for our happiness. Certainly we can find some kind of happiness through them. But what’s the best means to truly find for ourselves all the happiness we want and what’s the best means to rid ourselves of all problems? There’s no better thing than the spiritual life or the Dharma.
So if you ask who has created every happiness there is to have and removed every suffering by relying on spiritual practice? Who is that person? That is the Buddha who was once exactly the same as we are, not different to us. In other words, this Buddha had the faults we find within us and experienced the problems we experience, but through relying on the Dharma changed into a fully Enlightened being.
To get to such a state of Enlightenment, Buddha spent three infinite ages of time accumulating all that needed to be accumulated and purifying all that needed to be purified. What does this mean then? It means that we find within ourselves faults and shortcomings, but it is possible to rid ourselves of these. Similarly, there are many fine qualities which we must learn, however these qualities can arise within us. So what is meant by Enlightenment? It is a state in which all the faults are gone and all good qualities have come into being. After achieving this state of full awakening the Buddha then said, ‘here this is the way it is done, if you want to do it, you do it too’.
In general, what is the reason for engaging in this spiritual practice? In the end it all comes down to living beings, to those creatures who are alive. The real purpose of spiritual life, is the needs of all living beings. One can see Enlightenment also, as a state from which one understands that all that living beings have needs, and knows how to best take care of those needs. It is true that such a state of Enlightenment can be achieved quickly. The way to think, however, is that it will take eons and eons of time but that one has enough patience to achieve it. And then one should think: since I need so much time to work and achieve this state to help others, I will need to live in many forms of life like the one I have now. This life (or rebirth), where I have these spiritual interests, is the way I must be again and again, so that I can keep working to achieve the goal.
This means then that we must think: I have to make sure that I don’t end up in a form of life lower than this one. A lower form of life means one in which there is total suffering, one is totally driven, one is totally stupid. Taking life forms like that, one has to avoid in order to be able to pursue this work for others. This explains why the Buddha gave the following advice: ‘never perform even the smallest wrong and perform every virtue’. Through keeping those two things in mind one can then find oneself in a form of life like this in the future, so one can pursue the long term goal of having the needs of others in mind.
But of course it’s just words to say one should avoid even the smallest wrong-doing if one does not know what wrong-doing is. It can be defined as anything physical or verbal which comes about motivated by attachment or hatred, and which are rooted in confusion. The idea being that these wrong doings, defined in this way, are the causes to end up in an unfortunate form of life.
The summery of the advice of the Enlightened one is never to do even the smallest wrong and try to perform even the smallest virtue. So not only must one know what is meant by wrong-doing but one also has to know what is meant by virtue. A virtue means any verbal or physical act which is motivated through an absence of attachment, an absence of hatred and an absence of confusion. These actions will lead to having a life form like this in the future.
Now lets look at the ten non-virtuous actions. One defines ones spiritual life in terms of restraining oneself from ten actions motivated by ignorance, attachment and anger. To that extent one is causing a future state of being which will be like this one, proceeding along happily. If one does not restrain oneself verbally and physically from such actions, one is setting up the causes for a future in which one proceeds very unhappily.
If you want to boil it all down to a sentence, the sentence would be: don’t ever do the smallest thing that hurts anybody else. In other words the presentation of the ten non-virtuous deeds is understood in terms of things which will harm somebody else. If one has a standard, a personal standard one keeps to, and that standard is defined by restraining oneself from these ten non-virtuous deeds, through having such an ethic, one is setting down the course for coming forth in states like the one we now find ourselves in, or in even happier states than this. Not just once but again and again into an ongoing future.
What are the ten actions then that one should restrain oneself from? They would be restraining oneself from taking life, from stealing things, from sexual misconduct, from lying, from shouting, from talking behind the back of friends and separating them, restraining one’s speech in general, not letting oneself run on at the mouth. Restraining oneself from coveting other people’s things, from bearing malice or hatred within, and restraining oneself from gross prejudice.
Is it not true that if one restrains oneself from hurting others they are happy thereby? And isn’t it also true that if one doesn’t restrain oneself from those nasty behaviors that others are made unhappy? I unhappy, right? If somebody comes at us trying to help us we are made happy, aren’t we? So it works going the other
How do we do it practically? We can think: ‘until the day I die I will never come at others trying to hurt them, I will never try to harm them, I will try to help’. But then, if one can’t do that one thinks: ‘well okay, just until tonight, to the end of this one day, I’ll try not to come at any other being with the thought I am going to hurt them, but rather what can I do to help’. And just by gently going in that way one can start to find a spiritual practice for oneself.
It is one of the variables of being a human being, with the kind of brain and mind that a human life form brings, that if we decide to try to help others we can be of much help, and if we decide to try to hurt them we can hurt them terribly. It is not just that. If we try to hurt others they also start using their minds to try to hurt us back. If we try to help them, their thoughts will also be more positive towards us. So this then is the ethical standard in ten points, the so called ten virtuous. And to the extent that we have a standard and keep to it, we are protecting ourselves from a form of life which is suffering or which is horrible. To that extent we are making for ourselves a future which will be at least as good as this one we have now.
I should say something of samsara, this flow of forms of life coming one after the other that we find ourselves stuck in. We didn’t come here having thought ‘I am going to come here’. We ended up here through no particular decision on our own part, not because we were free to come. In other words, we’re caught within a flow of existence’s, which can not stop because the moment we find ourselves taking birth in a form of life like this, we are moving towards death, and that death itself is a precursor of a state which simply goes towards another birth. And thus this flow or this samsara, going on and on, has no beginning and as it is now, will never end for us. Having this reality in mind, this reality in which we find ourselves caught, the Enlightened One said: ‘You should know this to be suffering, you should know what causes it, you should know the end of it, and you should know the path to that end’.
The example that illustrates the idea is this. You have to first of all know that one is sick. When one knows one is sick one then goes to a doctor who has to find out what’s causing the sickness. And then having identified what causes the sickness, prescribe a medicine. And by taking that medicine one gets well. That is the example. So similarly, one has to be aware that our being here, our state of our ongoing being, is itself a problem. The reason being that until one understands it to be a problem, until one knows it is suffering, one will never have the thought, ‘I will have to get away from this’.
That is why one can think of suffering in many ways. You can think for example from six angles about how this is indeed suffering. If we look at the state in which we find ourselves, we see that contentment can never come. No matter how much we consume, we will always need something the next day. It is also a state in which there is nothing definite relative to other living creatures. They might be friends or enemies today but tomorrow they might have changed. Nothing is certain. It is possible that even somebody who is a heart friend will become a mortal enemy tomorrow, and somebody who is a mortal enemy today can be heart friend tomorrow. That is built into the situation in which we find ourselves. On top of this the body that were carrying with us is something that is going to drop from us at some point. This is a situation in which we will find ourselves again and again, and each time we die we go forth totally alone, whether our mother, father, partner or friend, nobody but ourselves goes on each time. And this too; that our struggles to succeed will end in failure. In other words, that no matter how much we attempt go up, the end of all going up is coming down. It is a part of the problem of being as we are.
You can look at it more significantly from the view point of a life form like we have. Not just any life form but human life form. Problems we face are the sufferings associated with being born, getting sick, getting older and of dying. The suffering of losing friends and the things which we like, and meeting with enemies and things we don’t like. The suffering of unrequited hopes when we struggle for something we need or want, and no matter how much we try, sometimes, we just can’t get it.
What all this is coming down to is that this great heap of meat and bone that we are sitting in here is itself what’s meant by the ‘suffering flow of existence’. In this sense, if we are as we are, we are capable of feeling cold, we can get burned and get to hot, we feel hunger and thirst. It’s all part and parcel of this kind of reality. One also needs all sorts of things, for example one has to put a roof over ones head, one has to go and buy clothes. Many things become necessary indeed! And why do we go out to work? I mean we prefer to just take it easy, right. We don’t go out to work for ourselves, we go to work for this heap of flesh and bones because ‘It’ needs us to work to keep it going. Look how hard we work for it, we really have to spend a tremendous amount of time on it to keep it fit and going well. We are servants to it.
So you see, one is directing one’s thoughts to a theoretical state in which this heap of flesh and bone didn’t come forth with me stuck in it. One is getting an idea of what such a state might be. So say one gets to be born a celestial being. One stands up not with this lump of flesh and bone but in some sort of light form. It is true, we wouldn’t then have quite the problems that come with flesh and bones, but, it is only a temporary state of excellence, as the energy that keeps it going degenerates.
Lets go back to just how did it happen that I rose up, as it were, in this form of flesh and blood. One finds the causes to be, mentally speaking, these cankers or afflicted emotions (skt. klesha) in ones mind, and the actions that they motivated. If I didn’t have these, I wouldn’t be always getting stuck in these heaps of flesh and bone. In a word, I wasn’t born miraculously, there were were causes for my birth. The causes for birth are actions that one performed and actions which were motivated by particular cankers in the mental state, particularly the afflicted emotions. It is through getting rid of these cankers in one’s mental make-up that one gets rid of the causes to be in a state such as we now find ourselves.
It is easy to say cankers or kleshas, there are so many of these mental afflicted emotions. But really, if you boil it all down to the main ones, what one identifies is attachment and hatred and confusion. These are the main cankers. One has then, particular kleshas or cankers stuck in one’s mind, and you can’t burn them off, you can’t cut them out and you can’t rub them away. You can’t just rid of the mind of them in this way. One has to somehow have a method to get these things out of one’s mental world, one needs some kind of antidote.
The main klesha is confusion, which consists of an apprehension of truth. Say one is looking at a stone pillar off at a distance, but somehow it looks as if it is a person is over there. It really appears as a person even though there is no person, there’s just a stone pillar but we believe in a person standing there. Similarly with everything that we’re aware of in the universe. Every time we become aware of anything we think, ‘hey, that’s real, isn’t it? Yeah that’s real and it’s truly what it seams to be, yes, that’s how it is’. In exactly that same way we accept something as real or true by the way it seems to be, even if it is not real or true. It is the same as if you see something in the dark and think ‘watch out, it is a snake’, but in fact it is a coiled up rope. All of a sudden one feels tremendous animosity towards it. Better get rid of it! Better kill it! When you turn on the lights you suddenly see all of the grounds for one’s animosity and fear are not there at all. But as for ourselves we had no doubt, it was really a snake, we were totally settled on it, totally certain about it. It was reality.
We apprehend something, we hold on to it, we believe in it; ‘But as for me, don’t be silly, of course I am here, absolutely exactly as I seem to be. That person who hurt me is most certainly there, trying to get at me and I don’t like them. The person who is helping me is definitely there helping me, and yes indeed, I like them very much.’ Thus, based on this confusion comes hatreds and attachments. Since one is so sure that indeed ‘I’ am here and indeed that person hurts me or helps me is there, then that person who’s so certainly there should immediately turn up once one searches for them analytically. Something appearing as so real, one should obviously be able to find. Something so real should become clearer and clearer when one’s goes looking analytically for it. Through that analytical search, one begins to chip away at this ascent, the belief in a reality that is in fact not there. With the awareness that the reality I always believed in has never been there, one begins to get insight into emptiness and begins to find an anti-dote to the problems.
As it’s said, when one gets rid of the confusion about the truth all the other kleshas are just blown away. But one might say, ‘what about all those wrong things I did in the past, do they just disappear?’ No, they all remain as things one did. In other words one’s karma remains, but with the absence of this belief in truth, there is no longer conditions for the results which one would have otherwise experienced to come forth. So this is a method to remove these afflicted emotions or kleshas from one’s mental world and thereby to free one from suffering.
On the historical level then, it was the Buddha who sat near the Niranjana river under the Bodhi Tree and found Enlightenment there, having struggled for so long to understand. Then, after going to Sarnath He taught this: ‘Know this to be suffering and know these to be the causes of suffering, having this samsara and these kleshas in ones mind. That’s the enemy of the Dharma. That’s the enemy of the Truth, the enemy of the Way, the enemy of spiritual life’. These cankers or these things which stick to our inner state of mind, these afflicted emotions, these hatreds, attachments and this basic confusion which allows us to believe in realities which are not real. And it’s the fight, as it were, against these inner enemies which is the fight to be fought when one is attempting to pursue a spiritual life.
And this is in essence what Buddhism comes down to, that one sees or one faces up to the problems one is caught in, the problem which is here now. One identifies the causes of it, in essence these psychological afflicted emotions or kleshas. And one seeks to free oneself from suffering by removing from one’s mind those kleshas. When a person has got strong cankers or kleshas, that person will be agitated and upset. If one doesn’t have a way to bring oneself to peace, to a feeling of well being, how can one lead others to well being.
The spiritual practices which stop one progressing along the flow of existence in a bad state are the first level, or first step. A second deeper level is a spiritual practice which gets rid of these kleshas from our inner states of mind. When one’s mind is no longer afflicted by these, one’s peace, one’s well being is firm and ongoing forever. But there is a deeper lever than that, also, because that would just be me who attained peace. In fact there is the needs of others that one has to keep in mind. I have to, in other words, develop my talents into a state in which I am Enlightened in order to do something for them. There are indeed those worthy beings who have found freedom for themselves, but that’s not enough. There is the freedom of all other living beings too. That must concern me. If I were to develop my talents to such a level that I were Enlightened, I could lead so many other living beings also into that state of unending peace.