Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobden: Introduction to Atisha’s Jewel Mala

Geshe Yeshe Tobden: In order to develop a determination within our mind, we have to first see the qualities of such methods and means.

Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobden: Introduction to the Commentary on Atisha’s Jewel Mala

Presented November 12, 1997, at the DFF Center. The great teacher Geshe Yeshe Tobden passed away in July 1999 in Dharamsala, India. Geshe Yeshe Tobden gave a commentary on Atisha’s Jewel Mala, at DFF in November of 1997. Venerable Chodron recommends that students recite the King of Prayers and pray for Geshe Yeshe Tobden to again manifest to guide us on the path to enlightenment. Transcribed from tapes by Julie Rae.

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Ven. Geshe Yeshe Tobden

I’m very honored and glad to be at your center and to have the opportunity to speak on whatever I know of the Buddha’s teachings. I also thank you for coming tonight.I’d like to begin with a brief introduction to Buddhism. We all have a common wish to be happy and to be free of suffering. Not only human beings have this wish but every living creature that exists. We all, in our own way, try to fulfill this wish. As we all have our various methods and means to do this there are different results, or levels of happiness, that we can gain. We have external means to try to obtain happiness. However as that is not sufficient, we also have inner means such as a spiritual path or dharma to fulfill our wish to gain happiness. So even though we do have means which work to a certain extent to bring about some pleasure and happiness, external means are not in themselves sufficient to bring about ultimate, everlasting happiness – real satisfaction and peace of mind. In brief it can be stated as a fact that it is not possible to obtain ultimate happiness by external means only. Not only are we not able to obtain ultimate happiness but also it is not possible to remove all suffering with external means. However with the dharma practice it is possible. It provides the means to eliminate all suffering and brings about ultimate happiness. Therefore it is necessary and crucial to engage in dharma practice.

As Buddhists we revere and admire Buddha Shakyamuni. However it is important to note that even the Buddha, a fully enlightened being, was at one time exactly like ourselves. He was an ordinary being and went through all the sufferings we’re going through now. However, prior to enlightenment, the Buddha realized that only through dharma practice can one achieve full enlightenment. With the realization that it is only enlightenment that brings about complete happiness for oneself and other sentient beings, the Buddha developed love and compassion towards other sentient beings. Through that cultivation of love and compassion the Buddha proceeded on the path and did achieve full enlightenment – a state where all negativities are completely eliminated and all virtues and qualities are attained.

After attaining enlightenment the Buddha realized that everyone who pursues this path could find it possible to achieve such a state. Therefore he gave the teachings; he turned the dharma wheel. In other words he gave the means and methods for us to achieve such a state as well. If one were to ask if enlightenment is possible the answer is, it is definitely possible for each of us. It is possible because of the fact that the defilements, the faults, that we have within us are something that can be removed. The reason why the deluded state of our mind is something which can be eliminated is because of the fact that the defilements or afflictive emotions are in the nature of being transitory and change moment by moment. They are a temporary and not a permanent phenomena. The afflictive emotions in our minds are produced by causes and conditions and therefore without those causes and conditions, the afflictive emotions cannot arise. Therefore the deluded state of our mind is in the nature of being transitory and changeable. Because this deluded state is changeable, it is also removable. Furthermore it is the case that not only can the defilements within our minds can be removed, but there is also a means to do so. It is not the case that there is no one who can show the means and methods of how to eliminate the faults within our mind. It is a fact that there are, even to this day, living persons who can give methods of how to eliminate those faults. The method of eliminating the defilements within our minds is the dharma practice. There are beings alive who are giving the dharma teachings. Because there are all these conditions for the defilements within our minds to be removed, from our side we should cultivate the determination to follow those methods.

In order to develop a determination within our mind, we have to first see the qualities of such methods and means. In this particular case the methods and means of removing the defilements within our minds is the dharma practice. Therefore one should develop a determination to study more about the dharma. The first step is to identify the defilements. We must recognize them as being faults and something which has to be removed. After that initial step, the next step is to go into the actual means of how to remove them. There’s a quote from a great Indian master, Chandrakirti, in one of his great works: the defilements themselves and all the negativities that arise from the defilements, all come initially from the main root of the misconception of grasping to the transitory collections. When we overcome this misconception of grasping to the transitory collections, then all the defilements and the faults will be removed. The misconception of grasping to the transitory collections refers particularly to grasping to the self – a misconception of how the self exists and grasping on to this false self. Chandrakirti goes on further to say that therefore the yogis who strive to achieve liberation must overcome this false concept of grasping to the self. Because this misconception of grasping to a true self or true existence is the root of all the defilements, we have to eliminate this basic misconception.

We all have a common feeling or experience of self-importance, a feeling of “me”. Whatever happens in our life, we’re always thinking about “me” or “I”. We cling on to this “I”. By grasping onto this self, we put all our energy and efforts into trying to satisfy this “I”. And then we think “I need happiness, I need wealth, I need possessions, I need a car or house”. This comes from this basic clinging or grasping to the self. Grasping onto this self causes one to be attached to one’s own belongings and whatever is connected to oneself, such as close friends and so forth. Whatever we consider not important or not connected to ourselves we have an automatic aversion towards. This is how attachment to the self and whatever is related to the self and aversion to what we consider as being not important or connected to the self arises. This initial grasping to ourselves can lead us to engage in acts such as stealing, killing and so forth. We may not commit such a non-virtuous act as stealing, but, because of attachment to the self, we may cheat or deceive others in order to gain more for ourselves. And if there is any external condition that seems to harm this self, then this immediate aversion or anger arises. It can arise to such an extent that if someone is really harming you it can lead to killing. The main root of the afflictive mind, the ignorance that grasps at the self, serves as a cause for attachment or anger to arise in our minds. And as soon as anger or attachment arise in our mind, we are impelled to engage in non-virtuous actions, either physically or verbally. Whenever we engage in a negative action, physically or verbally, it is basically induced by this state of mind of either anger or attachment. When the root, which is the misconceptual mind, is severed then later states of mind of anger and attachment are also severed.

Now the question comes up of how to overcome this misconception. The main method to overcome the basic misconceptual mind is to engage in gaining the understanding of emptiness, and, after gaining the understanding of emptiness, to meditate on it for a long time. The procedure the Buddha took prior to becoming enlightened was this very procedure of understanding emptiness. And by meditating on emptiness, that in itself became the means for the Buddha to overcome the misconceptual mind. Then all the defilements within his mind were removed and, when they were completely eliminated, the Buddha became enlightened. Along with the realization of emptiness one has to cultivate the state of mind known as renunciation. Then one generates great love and compassion and develops the altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment, known as bodhicitta.

These basic practices can be cultivated. And even though we haven’t cultivated them yet, it’s something which is attainable for each of us. For example, when a child is born the child is not naturally intelligent from the beginning. However, after a certain age, the child is sent to school. By going to school and studying and following the techniques and means and methods, that small child can turn out to be a very intelligent person, a very wise person. In a similar procedure the qualities of renunciation, realization of emptiness and bodhicitta can be cultivated, can be achieved by every one of us. Therefore because all the faults are removable and because all qualities can be obtained, it can be stated that enlightenment is possible. If one follows the means, which is the dharma practice, then one can definitely achieve enlightenment. Buddha Shakyamuni is a being who has removed all faults and eliminated all defilements and has achieved all the qualities. Not only did the Buddha become enlightened, but after becoming enlightened, he showed human beings the means to do so also.

The teaching that Buddha gave after achieving full awakening was the teaching on the four noble truths: The truth of suffering which has to be understood, the truth of the origin of suffering which has to be abandoned, the truth of the cessation of suffering which has to be obtained and the truth of the path which has to be actualized.

The truth of suffering is something which has to be realized. What is tangible, what we can see – the mountains, the houses that we live in – all are in the nature of suffering. Even our physical bodies are in the nature of suffering. The causes of suffering, the origination of suffering, is what we call the defilements. In our present state of being, it would be quite impossible to eliminate the sufferings of other beings. However the initial step we can take and should take is trying to understand and thereby eliminate the suffering within ourselves. That is something which we can do.

Coming to an understanding of what the sufferings are within oneself, one proceeds into understanding what the origination or the causes of suffering are. The answer to that is the defilements within oneself. So if we wish to overcome the sufferings within ourselves, we should overcome the cause of the origination of the suffering. If the cause is eliminated then it cannot produce the effect. Because it is possible to remove the defilements, the Buddha comes to the third truth which is the truth of cessation. The truth of cessation is the state where all the defilements have been completely eradicated. And such a state, known as the truth of cessation, is something which is attainable. Even though we don’t have that state right now, it is something which can be achieved in the future. Because it is achievable and attainable, what we should do now is to proceed on the path which leads us to cessation. Now we come to the fourth noble truth which is the truth of the path. The truth of the path is the methods and means which lead us to the cessation of suffering. And the path is also the realizations which we gain through the practice of the dharma.

The particular means and methods to achieve this state (cessation from all suffering) is the practice of the three higher Trainings. The first of the three higher Trainings, the higher training in ethics, is basically guarding oneself from non-virtuous deeds of the body and speech. The second higher Training is the training in mental stabilization, concentration – meditating on an object for a long time. Concentration is itself the means to overcome the subtle levels of negativities in our minds. The third higher Training is the training in wisdom. In this case wisdom refers to the realization of emptiness, the meditation on emptiness. When one gains an understanding of emptiness and then meditates upon emptiness for a long time, this misconception (grasping to true existence) is slowly removed and eventually is completely overcome.

In the 12 links of dependent origination, the first link is ignorance. Here ignorance is referring particularly to the ignorance of grasping at true existence. The 12 links of dependent origination explains how we go about in cyclic existence over and over again. The first link is ignorance and through ignorance, karma is produced. Then consciousness arises and that karmic seed is left upon that consciousness and the other links follow. It is said that with the first link, the second link is produced and so forth. Similarly when the first link, which is ignorance, ceases, then the second link (karma) also ceases along with the remaining links. In this way, through ignorance, we are born over and over again and go around in cyclic existence. Because it is through ignorance that we go around in Samsara, when ignorance ceases then automatically the cycle is stopped. When we talk about being free from Samsara this means that the cause of being reborn in Samsara is removed. When we overcome the cause of ignorance, then we are free from Samsara.

There are two main obstacles which prevent us from reaching the ultimate state of happiness. They are known as deluded obstacles and obstacles to omniscience. When we overcome the deluded obstacles, we achieve the state of liberation or nirvana. The obstacles to omniscience are more subtle and more difficult to overcome. Once we remove the obstacles to omniscience, we obtain full enlightenment and become a buddha. I’d like to emphasize again that because faults can be eliminated and all qualities can be obtained, enlightenment is attainable and achievable. It is not only attainable but there are enlightened beings existing now.

To explain briefly what the Buddha’s teaching is – it is the means to overcome our main enemy the defilements. Overcoming the defilements prevents us from being reborn in the lower realms. After having overcome defilements, we don’t have to be reborn in cyclic existence again. The means of overcoming our worst enemy is explained by the Buddha and by no one else. It is not explained in any other religion or teaching. For example in the early days when Buddhism was flourishing in India, the most dominant religion was Hinduism. In Hinduism, there was no specific instruction of how to achieve liberation through the elimination of the defilements. Even in later religion such as Christianity, there doesn’t seem to be any clear explanation of overcoming the defilements in order to achieve liberation. I’m not saying this because I’m a Buddhist practitioner myself. It’s up to you to find out if this is true or not. You can compare and check into different religions.

In ancient religions such as Hinduism, there are certain instructions on how to achieve liberation. According to some Hindu beliefs, if one were to jump into a pit of fire and die, then one will achieve liberation, or if you wash yourself in certain kind of water then that will eliminate your negativities, or if one were to starve oneself then that in itself will be a cause to achieve liberation.

Unlike all these other beliefs, the Buddha taught that it is the defilements within our minds which are the cause for all our sufferings and which prevent us from achieving liberation. Therefore we should overcome the afflictive emotions within ourselves. Once one has completely overcome the delusions, one achieves liberation. As Buddhists, we should try out the means and methods. We should try to use the techniques and attitudes which have been explained for overcoming certain emotions. When we apply these antidotes and practice them, we can find out for ourselves whether using the antidotes reduces the afflictive emotions or not. Do we achieve a certain amount of peace within ourselves or not? We can experience this for ourselves.

What we should keep in mind, however, is that the main purpose for practicing dharma is to be of service or benefit to other sentient beings. One comes to understand that without achieving full enlightenment it would not be possible to be of best benefit to sentient beings. When it explains that one attains the ability to help and serve other sentient beings when one achieves enlightenment, that doesn’t mean a Buddha can remove other beings defilements and negativities like taking a thorn out of their foot. It doesn’t mean that one will be able to wash away the negativities of other sentient beings as one would wash away stains from clothes. The question is, then “How does a Buddha help other sentient beings?” Once one becomes fully enlightened, one gets the full understanding and awareness of true existence and thereby one knows exactly how to show and guide other beings. The means and methods to help other sentient beings is by showing the ultimate truth and showing it exactly as appropriate for that sentient being. The beings themselves have to work on achieving the goal. The main instruction of the Buddha for us to gain liberation and full enlightenment is that one should not engage in the slightest negative action and one should cultivate all virtues, thereby subduing one’s own mind.

If one develops an attitude to be free of misery and suffering solely for oneself, that would be a spiritual dharma practice. However, it would be a practice within what we call a lesser vehicle, known as the Hinayana path. When one develops a wish to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, one would be considered to be a spiritual practitioner of the Mahayana or higher vehicle. It is totally an individual choice which vehicle one wants to take, or which level of practice one wants to engage in. After having developed a strong wish to achieve enlightenment for all sentient beings quickly, then there’s a practice known as Tantra. However if one has a wish to study or practice the Tantric path, it is crucial to have developed the basis – the three principle realizations of renunciation, bodhicitta and wisdom.

Therefore, it is important for us to develop an attitude to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Prior to actualizing that wish, one should first have a strong wish and determination for oneself to be free from cyclic existence. And in order to develop such a strong determination to be free of cyclic existence one has to first have the desire to be free from the lower realms. If one has a very firm state of mind where one wishes to be free of the lower realms in the next life, based on that attitude one can develop the determination to be free from the whole of cyclic existence. When one has a very strong and firm attitude of wishing to be free from cyclic existence, then based on that attitude, one can develop a wish to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all living beings.

After generating a wish to actually practice dharma if this is at all possible, then the doubt or the question may arise in one’s mind, “Is it possible for me? Can I actually engage in this practice myself?” It is definitely possible for us. The reason why one can state that it is possible for each of us to engage in the practice is because we have a precious human birth and all the conditions intact. Because we have a precious human body, we have human intelligence. Human intelligence is a unique intelligence compared to other species, an intelligence which is very clever and very smart. We can make great achievements with this intelligence. A precious human rebirth, unlike just any human birth, is one which has the eight liberties and ten endowments. Having understood what a precious human rebirth is, and that one in fact has this oneself, we come to the determination to actually practice dharma.

However, even having come to such a conclusion, there may still be doubts. We may feel, “OK, I do definitely have to practice dharma, but because there is a next life, maybe I can practice dharma in the next rebirth – I’m too busy in this life”. In order to overcome such an obstacle, such a cunning mind that procrastinates, then one should develop the awareness that this precious human rebirth is not something that is guaranteed again in the future. It is very rare and not easy to find again. Even in this very lifetime we do not know how long we will have this precious human rebirth – death can approach at any time. Contemplating the fact that death can approach any time induces the determination to practice the dharma from this day on. At the time of death there is nothing else but dharma, the spiritual understanding within our mind which can help us. Possessions, wealth, friends, cannot help us at the time of death.

Having realized that, we determine to practice dharma right now. In other words one should be aware of the fact that we are human beings now, we do have the precious human body and we do have the intelligence and all of the conditions to do practice and follow the dharma path. But it is not certain how long we’ll have all these conditions intact and death is definite. And because death is certain and we don’t have a long time, we should definitely practice dharma while we can.

After our death it is certain that we will be reborn again and in our present state there are only two choices: either we are born in the lower realms or we are born in the higher realms. Because we don’t wish to be reborn in the lower realms we should strive to practice dharma so that we can be born in the higher realms, such as a human rebirth. Because we wish to be born in a higher rebirth, we should engage in the cause of that – avoiding non-virtuous actions and cultivating virtuous ones. As Buddhists, that means generating a strong sense of refuge in one’s mind and absorbing the law of causality-cause and effect. In order to be free from cyclic existence one should engage in the practices of the three higher Trainings. For those of us with the wish to achieve full enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings, for those with such a precious mind, the procedure is to cultivate love and compassion towards all living beings. Based on these states of mind – love and compassion – one develops bodhicitta. Along with the development of this altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment, one engages in the practices of the six perfections – generosity and so forth. As one engages in the practices of the six perfections, eventually one proceeds on the path and achieves enlightenment. In this way I have touched on the basic points of the practices of the three scopes or three levels. By having given a very brief instruction tonight, I can follow in more detail over the next days. This concludes my teachings for tonight.


Q: As Westerners we have particular riches in our culture that make practicing the dharma perhaps a little more difficult or challenging.

A: Basically, I feel that all the conditions to practice dharma are here. As far as external conditions go, I don’t see that people here would starve by practicing dharma. Actually contrary to starving, because the economic system is much better in this part of the world, one may have more opportunities to practice the dharma in a more comfortable environment. In the East there may be many who wish to devote their lives to the dharma and the practice completely. Because there are not sufficient conditions however, they find it difficult to really commit their lives just to practice. Here in the West, because there are more people who have more, possibly there may be more who wish to help those interested in pursuing dharma practice. It might be possible. In any case if one really has a strong determination and wish to practice dharma – like the great Yogi Milarepa – then with such a strong wish and determination I’m sure there’s no worry of food or so forth coming. There will definitely be people who will provide that.

When I refer to the great Yogi Milarepa, I’m not trying to indicate that you should all give up everything and become like Milarepa right away. That may not be a practical approach to practicing dharma for you. It is of course essential for you to work and have a job and sustain yourself in this society. I can understand how it is very difficult without having a good job. However, I would advise those of you who are interested in pursuing a spiritual practice to commit your free time to understanding and gaining more knowledge of Buddhism. Then you slowly put into practice what you have learned. After awhile, when you start integrating your practice into your daily life, you might slowly begin to see more importance in it and find that you can devote more time to do more serious practice. So it is possible to practice dharma while engaging in a normal daily life.

Q: What do you think about the Hollywood fascination with Buddhism?

A: Some of those who are in that Hollywood circle I know personally. I’ve met them and they’ve asked questions dealing with Buddhism, questions on dharma practice. Their questions seem to be sincere questions and quite profound. Judging by that, I feel that they have a sincere mind. Therefore I can say that this interest could be a good thing. To name someone in particular, for example Richard Gere, who actually came up to visit me at my hut in the mountain; He took the effort to come all the way up to see me – he does have a good sound basis of knowledge of Buddhism. I would consider him to be someone who has understood essential qualities of practicing dharma and found it to be one of the best means to provide real happiness in life. He has therefore tried to commit himself to trying to understand and practice Buddhism.

Q: How young were you when you first started to practice the dharma?

A: I actually became ordained as a monk when I was ten years old. However the real inspiration came when my mother passed away when I was eighteen years old. Soon after my mother passed away, my sister and then my father also died. When all this happened, one after another, that generated within me the feeling that death is really something certain and could happen at any time. That was the strong inspiration for me to engage in a more serious practice.

Q: Do you advance much quicker being in retreat rather than being in society?

A: If I were to generalize, then of course it is much more conducive to be in retreat. However, I must state that my personal experience has been when I do come out and meet with different people and am approached with different kind of questions, it does help me to reflect more upon the practices I have to do. So I have to state that there is an advantage to coming out and being with people in society as well.

Q: When you are in retreat for a long time, do you just meditate for many hours of the day or are there certain practices that you do?

A: Most of the time I spend meditating. But sometimes then I also study and read texts. Other times when I feel tired, I just lie down and sleep! However, it is also the case that, after coming to the realization that dharma practice is a means to bring about happiness and peace in the mind, it is a great joy when I’m able to tell even one person that this is so and a fact. To be able to even convey that message to one person brings about great joy within me. When I am giving a teaching that killing is a non-virtuous act and brings about suffering, if by hearing that someone who previously was engaging in the act of killing (even bugs), if from that day on they refrain from killing and commit themselves not to kill any more, when I learn about that, that brings me great joy.

It also is a fact that dharma practice is the means to bring about real happiness and joy for one’s mind and it is not external means such as money. It is a fact that money in itself does not bring joy and happiness to people. There are people with a great deal of money who are very miserable and negative and their state of mind is very confused and frustrated. When I’m able to convey the message that it is a spiritual practice that brings about happiness and joy and when others can understand and experience that, then that again is a great source of joy for me.

One becomes a useful and good human being when one understands the main dharma practice is benefiting others, being of service to others as much as possible, and at the very least, not harming other living beings. That is the main message. When one understands that by harming others, which is non-virtuous act, one plants the seed for misery and suffering for oneself in the future, then one refrains from harming others. Contrary to harming others, if one were to benefit others, it not only benefits them but also oneself. The result of benefiting someone else is always a means or cause for happiness and joy for oneself. That is what is known as virtuous karma.

Whether one wishes to consider oneself a spiritual person or not, if that is in fact the mode one follows – which is avoiding harm to others and benefiting others – that is indeed what is a real spiritual practice. When you talk about religion, not everyone wants to consider themselves religious. However if one were to ask if one wants to be happy then everyone will answer, “Yes, I want to be happy.” Even those who don’t consider themselves as practicing dharma, if they were actually to follow this principle of really benefiting others and avoiding harming others, then in fact they are practicing dharma. In other words whether one considers oneself to be practicing the dharma or not, if one really develops a kind heart, then one’s future rebirth will definitely be a good one.

For those of us who do believe in a spiritual path, it is essential and crucial to constantly remind ourselves of what it means to be a spiritual person – what is the main practice. We should try to see that whatever we do on the spiritual path is directed towards this aim. It is a fact that if you truly follow the dharma practice, you do become a good person.

When someone who does practice dharma becomes older they have a lot of things to do, they have a lot of activities. But when someone who doesn’t have a dharma practice becomes old, they only have one thing to do – sit in front of the TV! For someone who believes in the dharma and has followed a dharma life, there are more and more activities, one is always occupied. Then when the actual time of death comes and one is aware that one is about to die, then there are no regrets in the mind. You feel, “I’ve done the best I could in my life and I have followed a spiritual path as much as I can.” There are not only no regrets but a certain confidence that one will have a good rebirth based upon the good life one has led.

I find that Western people in general have very curious minds and wish to investigate and find out many things, so please use that intelligence and investigate the dharma and find out whether it is really applicable or not. But please don’t expect quick results. It is not the case that if you practice dharma today you’ll feel very happy tomorrow. It’s a long procedure and a life-long practice and commitment and the results come about in a gradual way. Furthermore, there are many stages within a dharma practice, so it would be wise to start on a level one can handle and then slowly proceed on. Leaving aside something which one can actually do and trying to approach something that’s impossible for one right away is very unwise. Even though there may be certain levels that one may not be able to actually engage in now, it is important for us to know about them and to know what are the main procedures and the main goals one is headed towards. One needs a firm foundation before proceeding to the higher levels.