Central Doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism

Central Doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism

The first truth means that any form of conditioned existence is ultimately of the nature of suffering and dissatisfaction. The second truth means that suffering, which we all instinctively shun, comes about due to conditions, namely the afflictions that lie within us and the karmic actions which they impel us to perform. This state of suffering and delusion is often illustrated by means of the so-called Wheel of Life that depicts the interlocking chains of the “twelve links of dependent origination”.The third truth means that there is, however, the possibility of eliminating of all our suffering. Lastly, the fourth truth presents the true paths, or actions, that will lead to the attainment of this freedom from suffering.

The Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths is often illustrated through the metaphor of healing. In order for a sick patient to overcome his or her illness, first a correct diagnosis must be made of the patient’s condition. Second, the physician should examine the conditions that gave rise to the illness and that continue to sustain it. Once this has been done correctly, the physician will be in a position to assess the chance the patient has to overcome the ailment. Finally, the physician will be able to prescribe the most appropriate regimen for the patient so that he or she will be able to achieve the wellness they seek. The teachings of the Four Noble Truths encapsulate the essence of the fundamental teachings of the Buddha.

Emptiness and Dependent Origination

The philosophical outlook of all four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism is the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness. On this view, all things and events are said to be devoid of any intrinsic and absolute existence. They come into being due to the aggregation of multiple causes and conditions. Not only is their material existence dependent upon other factors, even their very identity as they are is contingent upon other factors, such as language, thought and concepts that together make up worldly convention. This absence of intrinsic existence and intrinsic identity is what is referred to as “emptiness” and is considered to be the ultimate truth of all things and events. One of the most profound implications of this theory of emptiness is that it suggests that all things and events come into being only by means of a process of dependent origination. They are dependent upon other factors, and this fundamental truth about the nature of reality is understood best through a language of interdependence and interrelationship of things.

The Tibetan Buddhist thinkers see this theory of emptiness as an elaboration and refinement of the basic Buddhist theory of no-self, which lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths. The theory of emptiness was systematically developed as a fundamental philosophical standpoint by the well-known Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna (circa 2nd century CE). His writings, especially the Fundamentals of the Middle Way led to the evolution of the highly influential Indian Buddhist school called the Middle Way (Madhyamaka). All four principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism perceive themselves to be proponents of the Middle Way philosophy.

The Altruistic Ideal

Along with the cultivation of profound philosophical insight of emptiness the development of an altruistic motivation lies at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. This principle is often known as the Bodhisattva ideal and refers to a self-less motive born of a great compassion towards all things living. “Great compassion” refers to the spontaneous wish to see others free of sufferings simply because they are suffering creatures. It is universal, nondiscriminatory, and passionate to the point where the individual is capable of dedicating his or her entire being for the benefit of other sentient beings. Such noble beings are called bodhisattvas, individuals with heroic aspirations. Their sense of commitment to relieve others from their sufferings is such that they continue appear in the world in different manifestations to fulfil this noble aspiration.

This Bodhisattva ideal permeates the entire spectrum of Tibetan Buddhist spirituality, thought, and practice, including even the origin myths of the Tibetan people. For example, the Tibetan people believe that they have a special karmic bond with Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. He is believed to manifest in different forms such as the Dalai Lamas and continue to serve the needs and spiritual aspirations of the Tibetan people. This myth of the Buddha of compassion is portrayed also in the powerful images of the Tibetan iconography, a most famous example being the image of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara. Furthermore the mantra of the Buddha of compassion OM MANI PADME HUM is on the lips of all Tibetan Buddhists.

This altruistic Bodhisattva ideal is translated into action as the practice of the six perfections. They are:
1. The perfection of generosity
2. The perfection of ethical discipline
3. The perfection of forbearance
4. The perfection of vigor
5. The perfection of concentration
6. The perfection of wisdom

It is in pursuit of the perfection of these six practices that the Bodhisattva fulfills their aspiration to bring about the welfare of all sentient beings. Of the many Indian Buddhist works of Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland and Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life remain to this day the most influential texts for Tibetan Buddhists on the practice of the altruistic ideal of universal compassion. For example, the present Dalai Lama repeatedly states that the following verse from Shantideva is his greatest source of inspiration.

For as long as space endures
For as long as sentient beings remain
May I too abide
And dispel the miseries of beings

Vajrayana Buddhism

The Tibetan Buddhist traditions, in addition to perceiving themselves to be the upholders of the Mahayana teachings, identify themselves also as followers of Vajrayana, the so-called Adamantine vehicle. According to this tradition, it is not adequate simply to cultivate the altruistic aspiration to seek enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The Bodhisattva must generate this altruistic aspiration to such degree that he or she is incapable of tolerating the sight of other sentient beings suffering for even a single instant. The Vajrayana path is therefore seen as a swift path leading to the fulfillment of this basic aspiration. This swiftness of the Vajrayana path does not derive from a profound philosophical outlook, but because of the practice of most profound and sophisticated meditative methods.

Unlike other Buddhist teachings, in Vajrayana various techniques and skilful means are presented that help transform the powerful resources of such emotions as attachment, anger, hostility, jealousy, and so on into factors conducive to the path to enlightenment. These methods consist of complex visualization practices, the cultivation of the identity of a divinity, and the transcendence of the bounds of ordinary perception and self. These practices are key features of the heart of the Vajrayana meditation called deity-yoga, which is intimately connected with the visualization of the mandala. At the root of this deity-yoga practice is the unification of blissful experiences, such as those experienced through stimulation of sexual impulses, with a single-pointed concentration of mind on the emptiness of all things, known as the indivisible union of bliss and emptiness. This profound meaning of the Vajrayana path is portrayed explicitly in the complex iconography of the Tibetan Buddhist world, within which mandalas occupy a vital place. The Vajrayana meditation also includes sophisticated techniques involving the utilization of certain aspects of the human physiology such as channels, chakras (energy centers) and the vital energies that flow within them. Corresponding to which emotions are utilized on the path, there are different levels of practice, the apex of which is the Highest Yoga Tantra.

Guru-yoga as an Axle of Practice

All four schools of Tibetan Buddhism concur on the centrality of Guru-yoga for a successful Vajrayana practice. The heart of this meditation on Guru (the spiritual mentor) is to cultivate the perspective that enables the practitioner to view the nature of his or her own mind as being indivisible from that of the spiritual teacher and one’s meditation deity. In other words, the practitioner perceives the enlightened state of his mind as actually being the Guru and also the meditation deity. There is thus a non-duality between the object of meditation (the deity), the source of inspiration (the Guru), and the meditating mind (the practitioner’s own mind). Furthermore, the meditator also cultivates the pure vision of perceiving the spiritual teacher as the embodiment of all the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and meditation deities of all directions. This meditation of Guru-yoga is undertaken often in the form of a visualization of a “merit-field” which is illustrated in the form of a large tree of assembly. The image of the Lama Chöpa assembly tree is one such example.

This arrangement of the assembly tree provides a valuable glimpse into the basic topography of the Tibetan Buddhist path to enlightenment. The evocation of the masters of three lineages indicates the importance of having an uninterrupted transmission of the teachings through a succession of realized masters. The lineage of the “Profound View” pertains to the cultivation of insight into the ultimate nature of reality, while the lineage of the “Expansive Practice” relates to the development and enhancement of compassion and the altruistic aspiration to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Finally, the “Experiential Lineage” evokes the mystical dimension of the path that is related more to direct, spontaneous experience often derived through the inspiration of realized masters. This, of course, pertains to the Vajrayana path. Together, these three lineages underline the importance of the union of wisdom and compassion on the basis of a deeply inspired meditative practice. This, then, is the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practice.

The Four Noble Truths

Like all denominations of Buddhism, each of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism uphold the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. These constitute the heart of the Buddha’s first public sermon, given in the Deer Park in Sarnath, India, more than 2,500 years ago. These Four Truths are:
1. The truth of suffering
2. The truth of the origin of suffering
3. The truth of the cessation of suffering
4. The truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering