by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Translated by Thubten Jinpa
May 19-22, 2002
The great teacher Nagarjuna who is in fact considered as a second teacher in this era of the Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings, he states in his Precious Garland or Ratnavali that those who aspire to attain the state of full enlightenment must seek the three principal factors. He states that anyone who aspires to attain full enlightenment must seek its means, seek its causes. What are these correct causes? He identifies three principal factors. The first is bodhicitta, which is the aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings thus the generation of this altruistic intention, is the first principal cause.
[Thus observe the practices incessantly
174 And abandon those counter to them.
If you and the world wish to attain
Its roots are the altruistic aspiration to enlightenment
175 Firm like the monarch of mountains,
Compassion reaching to all quarters,
And wisdom not relying on duality.]
However this principal cause, which is the altruistic aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings is rooted in great compassion. He describes great compassion as infinite compassion with infinite here referring to the infinity of the number of sentient beings for whom one cultivates the wish to be free from suffering. Sentient beings are said to be infinite and equal to the expanse of space. So one needs to cultivate compassion not only wishing for all sentient beings to be free of suffering but in fact a more powerful compassion which has a sense of responsibility and commitment involved with it. Not only does one wish others to free of suffering but also in fact one shoulders upon oneself the responsibility to bring about this freedom from suffering. So this is the second principal cause.
The third principal cause that Nagarjuna identifies is what he calls the non-dual wisdom. Non-duality here refers to the wisdom of emptiness, which transcends the two extremes of absolutism and nihilism. This is the wisdom that penetrates into the ultimate nature of reality; the way things really are which is described as emptiness or the ultimate nature of reality.
One finds in the Bodhisattva scriptures the process of the path that is the process involved in attaining full enlightenment described as a very long process. It is described in terms of the Ten Bodhisattva Bhumis or levels and also in terms of the framework of the five paths. This whole process begins from the instant the individual practitioner generates and gains the realization of genuine bodhicitta, the altruistic intention.
For an intelligent practitioner with higher cognitive faculties they begin the path by first cultivating the wisdom of emptiness, the wisdom of no-self. This wisdom of emptiness gives rise to the realization of great compassion towards all sentient beings. This compassion that aspires to remove others’ suffering gives rise to a sense of responsibility, a sense of commitment to bring about the release of sentient beings from their suffering. This is called the extraordinary attitude or sense of responsibility, which then culminates in the realization of bodhicitta, the altruistic intention. At this instant the individual practitioner has become a bodhisattva, has entered the first of the Five Paths, the Path of Accumulation.
As the practitioner progresses on this path, deepening their realization of emptiness, the practitioner reaches a point where their understanding of emptiness does not remain merely at the level of the intellect but in fact acquires a meditatively-based experiential dimension. At this point the understanding of emptiness becomes derived from meditation rather than from intellectual understanding. This is point when the practitioner has entered the second path, the Path of Preparation or Linking.
As the practitioner progresses further deepening their insight into emptiness, they reach a point where the experience of emptiness becomes direct no longer being cognitive but direct. At this point the practitioner has entered the third path, the Path of Seeing. The practitioner has also attained the first bodhisattva level or bodhisattva bhumi. From the second bodhisattva level onward the practitioner attains the Path of Meditation. Within the ten Bodhisattva Bhumis or levels the first seven are referred to as impure levels where the practitioner is still not free from the afflictions and defilements. The last three levels, eighth, ninth and tenth levels are described as the pure levels.
It is through this process that the practitioner from the moment of first generating bodhicitta goes through the process and reaches the highest stage. These stages correspond to the periods of the accumulation of merit described in the Bodhisattva scriptures. It is said there that the attainment of Buddhahood requires the accumulation of merit over a period of three innumerable eons. The period of Paths of Accumulation and Preparation constitutes the first innumerable eon. The first seven Bodhisattva Bhumis, the impure levels constitutes the second innumerable eon of accumulation of merit and then the final three Bodhisattva Bhumis corresponds to the third and last innumerable eon of the accumulation of merit.
It is said that this attainment of Buddhahood during the period of three innumerable eons is in fact said to be a faster framework as some scriptures mention the attainment of Buddhahood as the result of thirty or forty innumerable eons. So the point being made is that the attainment of enlightenment or Buddhahood is not a matter of an instantaneous event. Although in some Vajrayana texts there are references to the attainment of Buddhahood within a single instance. For example there is a passage which says that by whose kindness one attains Buddhahood within a single instant and so on.
Sometimes people may get the impression that there might be some special practice that if one enter into a meditative session and during that session in a single instant by reciting the mantra HUM something happens so that one comes out of the session fully enlightened. This however is not the case. This is a very unrealistic expectation because the attainment of Buddhahood is a process that involves the transformation of one’s mental continuum. One’s mental continuum is permeated through and through with the pollutants of the afflictions and this pollution of the afflictions needs to be gradually removed, layer after layer. This is a gradual process and it is through this gradual process that one’s mental continuum becomes more and more purified and refined eventually culminating in the attainment of Buddhahood.
A question might then be raised that if Buddhahood takes such a long period of time then this is too much. One might feel discouraged. Here it is worth reviewing some of the passages one can find in Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland where Nagarjuna states that the length of the period of time that it takes to attain Buddhahood should not be grounds for discouraging a practitioner or for one to feel exhausted. In fact if the practitioner is such that they posses the skillful method as well as wisdom, the union of these two then the time factor should not make any difference to their sense of commitment and endeavor. He compares this with one’s own day-to-day experience. He states that if one is undergoing a painful experience then generally even if that period of time is very short, because of the painfulness of the experience it seems as if it is a very long time. In contrast if an experience is pleasurable and pleasant then even if the time of the experience is very long, one feels as if it were too short. This is generally the case.
If this is so Nagarjuna says that for a genuine practitioner who posses both the skillful method of compassion and bodhicitta united with the wisdom realizing emptiness then at the initial stage although the practitioner may encounter painful experiences at a physical level but given the strength of their inner realization one can endure these hardships. As one progresses further then at a certain level of realization the practitioner becomes invulnerable to physical hardship, pain and so on. If this is the case then the practitioner no longer feels pain and suffering. Therefore when the practitioner is engaged in the practices of the path towards the attainment of Buddhahood then the length of time will not make any difference to the practitioner as there is no experience of pain. This is one reason not to feel discouraged.
[Since thus they are not greatly harmed
224 By physical and mental suffering,
Why should they be discouraged
Though they lead beings in all worlds?
It is hard to bear suffering even for a little,
225 What need is there to speak of doing so for long!
What could bring harm even over limitless time
To happy beings who have no suffering?
They have no physical suffering;
226 How could they have mental suffering?
Through their compassion they feel pain
For the world and so stay in it long.
Hence do not feel inadequate thinking
227 “Buddhahood is far away.”
Always strive at these [collections]
To remove defects and attain good qualities.]
Another reason is that furthermore the bodhisattva practitioners have dedicated their entire beings for the benefit of other sentient beings. Nagarjuna expresses the sentiment in the Precious Garland, “May I be like the great elements of earth, fire, water and so on. May all parts of my being be of service to other sentient beings.” Similarly one finds in Santideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life he expresses the sentiment, “For as long as space remains, For as long as sentient beings remain, May I too remain, And dispel the sufferings of the world”.
[May I always be an object of enjoyment
483 For all sentient beings according to their wish
And without interference, as are the earth,
Water, fire, wind, herbs, and wild forests.]
If one can understand these sentiments properly then one will understand that the bodhisattva practitioner is someone who has dedicated their entire life, their entire being for the sole purpose to bring about others’ wellbeing and to serve others. If that is the case then the time it takes to become fully enlightened again has no relevance. Even if the person is fully enlightened the only task that remains is to serve other sentient beings, which is the goal of the bodhisattva practitioner anyway while they are on the path.
Furthermore when the practitioner is engaged with the path and dedicates their entire being for the service of other sentient beings then in a sense one is fulfilling the pledge that one has already made when generating bodhicitta, the altruistic intention as well as the Bodhisattva Vows. One is living the ideals that one has adopted and the pledge that one has accepted. When one thinks along these lines then one will understand that the notion of someone working for others wellbeing but somehow they have some other self-interest is in fact false. This is because the only task that a bodhisattva practitioner has is the service of others, bringing about the wellbeing of other sentient beings. So in these ways Nagarjuna explains that the time involved in the attainment of Buddhahood really has no relevance as far as the practitioner is concerned.
If one understands this point clearly then one will avoid the following danger. At times there is a tendency when a practitioner hears attractive statements like after doing a three year, three month retreat one will come out enlightened or will have great realizations. So when one hears such statements one becomes extremely interested and has great enthusiasm. However when one hears the Bodhisattva scriptures’ description of the attainment of Buddhahood as requiring effort over three innumerable eons, one’s interest diminishes. One can avoid this danger by having a realistic outlook.
In fact I too had this feeling when I was in my teens. Once when I was a teenager in one of my teaching sessions with my teacher with _____ Rinpoche I made the remark that after having looked at the Bodhisattva Sutras that the process of that path described in those sutras was so long that it seemed almost impossible. I said that probably the Vajrayana path where there is described the possibility of attaining Buddhahood in a much shorter time period would be more suited to me. He responded back by saying that how could one follow a viable Vajrayana path without the practice of bodhicitta or the altruistic intention. I remember that reply to this day very clearly.
Also Nagarjuna states in the Precious Garland that if an individual practitioner strives to cultivate bodhicitta with all of one’s effort and if one dedicates all of these efforts to the generation of this altruistic intention within oneself then through this dedication in the cultivation of this altruistic ideal living within these ideals then one will gain a sense of deep satisfaction. This is because one will know that they have fulfilled the goal of one’s human existence giving one a tremendous sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. This deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment serves as a counterpoint preventing any potential for any feelings of exhaustion or fatigue. So in such a practitioner there is no room for any feelings of fatigue. Therefore when as the result of striving for the cultivation of bodhicitta, the altruistic intention and compassion, if one gains the genuine realization of bodhicitta, uncontrived, non-simulated and spontaneous then one will attain a powerful state of mind. One’s vision transcends all limits.
For example one’s practice of compassion and bodhicitta is directed for the benefit of, for the purpose of infinite numbers of sentient beings. So far as the practice is concerned, it is infinite. The goal of the practice is infinite sentient beings. The purpose of this practice is to attain the state of Buddhahood whose enlightened qualities are infinite; infinite enlightened qualities are one’s goal. The means by which one engages in the practice are the infinite numbers of bodhisattva practices so there is an infinity of bodhisattva deeds. The time during which one engages in these altruistic activities is also infinite over innumerable eons. So there is an infinity of sentient beings for whose benefit one is engaging in the practice. There is an infinity of enlightened qualities that are one’s objective to attain and then there is the infinity of bodhisattva deeds that one engages in as the means. Finally there is an infinity of time over which one cultivates these practices.
When these four infinite factors come together, Nagarjuna says that this is itself will make it possible for the accumulation of merit over three innumerable eons to take place on its own. This is similar to what the Kadampa masters said when they would say to place all of one’s efforts into cultivating bodhicitta, the altruistic intention. This is because once one has cultivated bodhicitta, once one has generated bodhicitta then it will take care of everything. It will take care of accumulating one’s merits; it will take care of purifying all of one’s negativities. So all of one’s activities must be directed towards the sole purpose of generating bodhicitta.
Similarly Tsongkapa said in his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path that the cultivation of bodhicitta, the altruistic intention is such that when one engages in working for others’ welfare, one’s own self-interest will be fulfilled as a by-product. Therefore the practice of bodhicitta is such that one can say that it is the source of both one’s temporary aims as well as one’s ultimate aims. Often when one speaks of the enlightened qualities of a Buddha, one of these qualities described is the spontaneous achievement of any activity. In a way there is a similar spontaneity involved here. When one has realized bodhicitta then it allows one to fulfill all of one’s immediate aims and it also helps to one’s ultimate aim of obtaining Buddhahood. In a sense there is a similitude to a Buddha’s enlightened spontaneous quality.
One also finds in the Aspirational Prayer of Maitreya a stanza that states, “It is with that the path to the lower realms will be blocked, It is with this that the paths to the higher realms will be opened. It is with this that freedom from birth, aging and death will be brought about. It is to bodhicitta that I pay homage”.
In fact if one closely examine the entire spectrum of the Buddha’s teachings one will realize that the practice of bodhicitta, the altruistic intention is really the essence, the main, actual practice. All of the other aspects of the Buddha’s teachings and practices are either preliminaries to bodhicitta or supplements to it as precepts. For example one can see that within the framework of the three capacities, the three scopes that Atisha outlined, all of the practices that are associated with the initial scope and the middling scope are in one way or another preliminary practices to the actual practice of bodhicitta.
Then are the practices of the bodhisattva’s Six Perfections followed by all of the practices and teachings of the Vajrayana. In fact the Vajrayana teachings can be seen as further elaborations on the last two perfections, tranquil abiding and wisdom, the Perfection of Concentration and the Perfection of Wisdom. One can see that all of the teachings and the practices as embodied in the Six Perfections and also in the Vajrayana teachings are precepts that the bodhisattva practitioner of bodhicitta needs to engage in. So the heart or the main practice of Buddhism really is bodhicitta, the altruistic intention.
When one thinks about these points, what is entailed in the practice of cultivating bodhicitta, compassion and so on, if someone feels that this is completely beyond them, it is impossible, too difficult then of course one is free as an individual to choose not to engage in the practices. But then one needs to ask the question, if this is so then what other means are there to bring about the cessation of suffering that one does not desire?
Regardless of whether one accepts the notion of karma and afflictions, the fact remains that all of us are conditioned by karma and the afflictions. One’s very existence, one’s present existence is the product of karma and the afflictions. So long as one remains chained to the conditions of karma and the afflictions there is no room for lasting happiness. Calamities strike, undesirable events befall one; these are the natural facts of one’s existence. One’s sufferings include the natural sufferings of birth, illness, aging, death and so on but they are also other adversities that one faces in one’s life.
So here it is worth remembering what a Kadampa master Potowa said. He said that when one observes deeply the nature of one’s suffering including the sufferings of birth, aging, death and sickness, see if there is ever a possibility of exhausting completely this suffering simply by experiencing them and living them out. This however does not seem to be the case because since beginningless time one has endured these sufferings over and over again. But somehow time itself simply by living them out has not brought them to an end. If this is so then one can infer that even in the future simply through experiencing them will not bring about an end of these sufferings.
What is required is to consciously and deliberately bring about their end. This can be accomplished only by understanding the nature of suffering and seeking out the correct means to bring about their cessation.
A great scholar or geshe in a course of a conversation when discussing the nature of the self and the absence of selfhood, we talked about how elusive the phenomena of self is. When one probes into it and search for its existence, one finds that it is untenable; the self is not findable within the body or mind. The geshe then remarked that the self is very elusive and very complicated such that when one looks for it through critical analysis, one always tends not to find it. It is unfindable.
However if the self does not exist at all then in a sense that would make things very simple, would make things much better. There would not be any experiencer of suffering and pain; there would be no subject that undergoes such experiences. Everything would be much simpler however this is not the case. There is, regardless of whether one can pinpoint it or not, an individual being who undergoes the experiences of pain and pleasure, who is the subject of experience. Based on one’s own experience one does know that there is something, whatever one may call it that makes it possible for one to undergo the various experiences.
There is something called discernment, the ability to perceive things, the ability to discern objects. In fact if looks at the experience of suffering, although some of the suffering may be at the sensory level, at the level of bodily pain, in fact the very experience of pain is intimately connected with consciousness, connected with the mind. This is because the experience of pain is connected with feeling and feeling is part of sensation with sensation being part of the mental world. This is what distinguishes sentient beings from other organisms like plants and so on. Sentient beings have this subjective dimension whether one calls it experience, consciousness, the mental world or whatever.
The question arises what exactly is this phenomenon, this mental phenomenon? Whether or not this mental phenomenon, mind or consciousness is one hundred percent contingent upon the body, whether one can identify this mental phenomenon totally with the physical world is the issue of the mind/body relationship. This has been a major area of interest in the philosophical traditions. So this is not an issue that is very recent. This is an issue that has been raised in ancient India for its entire history.
For example one of the ancient Indian schools adopted a materialist standpoint [Carvaka]. They argued that the mind is ultimately reducible to the physical body. There is no separate phenomenon other than the physical body. They argued that because the mind is entirely contingent upon the body that when the body dies, the consciousness also comes to an end. They gave the analogy of the mind/body relationship as being like a wall and murals painted on that wall. So long as the wall stands the mural is there but when the wall is destroyed the mural is also destroyed. Another analogy they used was like wine and its ability to intoxicate. When the wine is drunk and gone, the ability to intoxicate is gone as well. Similarly the mind and body are related in that manner so that when the body dies that is the end of consciousness.
However many other Indian philosophical traditions rejected this materialistic approach. In modern correlates of this discussion of the relationship between the body and mind is our whole cosmological understanding of the origin of the universe. For example according to modern cosmology the beginning of the current world system is posited as the event of the Big Bang. Also there is the question of whether that event was the beginning of everything. Where did consciousness arise? One thing we can understand through both scientific analysis and also from our own personal experience of perception is that whatever experiences one has now are consequences of conditions that preceded it. Nothing comes into being without causes.
Similarly just as in the material world everything must have causes and conditions that give rise to it, similarly in the mental world as well all experiences have their own causes and conditions. When one speaks of the causes and conditions of consciousness, the mental world there are two principal categories of causation or causes and conditions. One is a material cause or the substantial cause that turns something into something else and there are other conditions that are contributory factors that make the process of causation possible.
The Indian Buddhist master Dharmakirti pointed out in his Pramanavarttika or Valid Cognitions that something, which is not mental, cannot turn into a mental phenomenon. In other words, something that is purely physical or material cannot become a mental phenomenon. What Dharmakirti is pointing out is that for an instance of consciousness to take place it must have as its preceding continuum another instance of consciousness. Through this way one can trace its causation to the beginning of consciousness in this life and through this way one posits an earlier or preceding life.
Furthermore if one examines the Vajrayana literature there is an understanding of varying levels of subtlety of mental phenomena or the mental world. Normally when one speaks of mind or consciousness one gets the impression that one is referring to a single, unitary phenomenon. This however is not the case. Just as the physical world is diverse similarly the mental world of consciousness is also very diverse with varying levels of subtlety. It is obvious that the grossest level of experience one’s consciousness’ perceptions and conceptions are very contingent upon one’s physical body. But as the level of consciousness becomes subtler there is a greater degree of independence from the physical body.
It is along these lines of reasoning that one accepts the never-ending continuity of the consciousness. From the Vajrayana point of view on the basis of this subtle, luminous nature of mind. It is not the case that the ancient Indian schools including Buddhism who accepted the concept of rebirth simply make the claim for rebirth on belief alone. A great deal of thought and analysis, philosophical reflection has gone into this. Furthermore one also finds anecdotal evidence of very clear remembering of past lives by children. Even in some cases this has happened in families where belief in the idea of rebirth or previous existences was not held. Again of course one needs to constantly subject this to analysis and critical examination.
Generally when doing so I think it is important to bear in mind one very important logical point, which is the following. One must be able to distinguish clearly between cases where one does not find something showing that it is not the case, finding an object’s absence and not finding an object. These are two different outcomes. Instead of not finding a phenomenon or confirming its absence many phenomena at the present may not be able to be found so far. One needs to be able to make a clear logical distinction between those instances where one has found something not to be the case, in other words having disproved something or instances where one simply has yet to find the phenomenon or reason.
It is important to be able to make this distinction between consensus where something has been found not to be the case and instances where we simply have not found what is being searched for. Also when one uses critical reasoning to analyze something one needs to understand the domain of the application of a particular style of reasoning. Different forms of analysis may have different domains, different scopes.
For example in the Pramanavarttika, Dharmakirti’s text on logic and epistemology, many different forms of reasoning are discussed. If one is establishing the absence of something, proving the nonexistence of something then one cannot simply state that it dose not exist simply because one cannot see it. This kind of simplistic reasoning does not operate. What one needs to do is to use the correct form of reasoning to the appropriate domain of discourse. For example Dharmakirti makes a distinction between two primary forms of logical negation. One is generally where the thesis being disproven, if it were to exist would be observable. Under such circumstances then if one can show that it can not be observed then one can prove its absence. There are however other instances where what is being negated is simply not perceptible, even under ideal circumstances. Under such a situation to simply state the fact that one cannot observe it cannot establish, cannot prove its nonexistence.
How does one go about negating something? There are two ways. First either by proving something that is contrary to the case is true, by establishing that object’s contrary one can negate something. Or by negating something closely related to or causally connected with something then one can negate the thesis. The point being made here is that it is through making a clear distinction between not finding something and finding its absence. This is an important logical distinction.
It is through these methods that ancient philosophical traditions like Buddhism chose to accept the notion of rebirth and previous lives. If one compares the two standpoints, the standpoint rejecting rebirth and standpoint accepting the never-ending continuity of consciousness and previous existences then one can argue that the standpoint accepting rebirth has greater explanatory powers at its disposal. If one does not accept of the never-ending continuity of consciousness or the possibility of rebirth then there remain many phenomena that remain inexplicable. One could then choose to call them mysterious or miraculous which is shorthand for ignorance. In other words basically one has no explanation for such phenomena whereas if one accepts the notion of rebirth and previous existences through the continuity of consciousness then although one might not be able to give completely satisfying explanations to everyone’s satisfaction, but it at least gives one more explanatory resources.
Generally when speaking of proofs it is very difficult to try and prove something that another person cannot have experiential knowledge of. For example imagine proving the existence of dreams to someone who claims never to have dreamt at all. How would one prove that everybody experiences dreams? Similarly in the case of all of us although from the Buddhist point of view we have all experienced different lifetimes but when one changes lifetimes the body changes and much of the memory that goes along with the body also ceases to exist. Therefore one usually has no ability to recall one’s past life experiences so it is difficult to say past lives exist because this is the case. One can say that between these two standpoints, because the standpoint that accepts rebirth along with previous existences has much more explanatory resource Buddhism choose to adhere to this standpoint rather than rejecting and denying rebirth.
When speaking of memory it does seem to be the case that much of one’s conscious memory is very contingent upon one’s present body, one’s physical existence. So a meditator when they enter into a very deep stage of meditation, the meditator is able to take their consciousness to a subtler state. As they go deeper it subtler levels of consciousness then there is a greater degree of freedom from the contingency of the body. So it seems that among the meditators that I know personally there are individuals who have occasionally when entering very deep states of meditation had very vivid recollections of past experiences. These at the initial stage remain more like spontaneous glimpses, which are called nyam (SP?) in Tibetan which is more like a spontaneous experience. These eventually if the meditator is able to progress deeper and deeper may be turned into an actual realization.
This suggests that as one goes deeper and deeper into meditative states the subtler that state of mind becomes. One then has a greater ability to recall past life experiences which reside in a much subtler state of consciousness as it is the subtlest continuum of the consciousness that connects sequential past lives.
If consciousness is ultimately reducible the body then all of the functions of the consciousness must be functions of the body in which case it is only by effecting the body that the mind could be effected. The opposite could never be the case. However a growing scientific interest has performed experiments upon individual meditators. In some cases they are beginning to find evidence where as the result of an individual meditator’s using purely the power of cognition or mind either through single-pointed meditation or another type of meditation the meditator is able to effect physical change at the biological level. Here one can see a reverse effect that as the result of a purely mental thought process taking place one can detect physical manifestations of that at a physiological level. So there is now a growing interest and continuing experiments are taking place which need to go further into this issue.
If however as the result of scientific or other critical investigation certain aspects of Buddhist thought are proven to be wrong or untrue then as followers of the Buddha, as Buddhists one must accept the consequences of this. I have often made the comment that for example the cosmological descriptions of the world found in the Buddhist Abhidharma texts such as the Abhidharmakosa, the Treasury of Phenomenological Knowledge describes the sizes of the sun and moon with very specific numbers. It also discusses the distances between the earth and the sun and moon as well as Mount Meru in center of the universe. Most of these cosmological descriptions that are found in the Abhidharma texts cannot be accepted because through modern cosmological studies these distances have been proven to exact measurements. According to the Abhidharma the difference in size between the sun and moon is describe as rather small but we now know there is a tremendous difference between the sizes of the sun and moon.
For example in the Abhidharma texts the distance is described as fifty-one yojanas. These can no longer be accepted as we now have very clear empirical evidence that suggests otherwise. As Buddhists who if an idea or concept has been disproved through very clear evidence then one must reject the disproved concept. Also for example Tsongkapa states in one of his texts, the Differentiation Between the Definitive and Interpretive Meanings of the Scriptures he states that he who accepts a philosophical standpoint that is contrary to reason, cannot be accepted as a reliable scholar. If this is the case then of course anyone who accepts or chooses to defy the evidence or empirical proof is even worse; one must accept the proof of the empirical evidence.
When understanding the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness if one were to rely entirely on the authority of the scriptures then one will reach an impasse because there are so many different varieties of scriptures. Many of these scriptures on the surface make conflicting claims, conflicting philosophical standpoints. There is simply no way that one could arrive at a proper understanding of the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness by only relying on the authority of the scriptures and their literal statements.
In fact there is a story that there was a not very bright student studying the geshe course and at the debate sessions whenever an argument was made this student would agree. Then when a counter argument disproving the other assertion was made this student would then agree with the counter argument. This is a similar situation to one who only relies on the scriptures at one’s disposal as an authority.
In the Buddhist tradition one looks at all of the diversity of scriptures which teach on emptiness and then use one’s own understanding and reason to arrive at a deeper, convergent standpoint. By using critical reasoning one distinguishes between different levels of subtlety of one’s understanding of emptiness and by using critical reasoning one makes differentiations between the scriptures that can be taken literally at face value and those that require further interpretation.
If this is so then of course when dealing with the world of conventional reality, the world of everyday diversity then one must accept that there is a area of commonality between Buddhist explanations of the nature of the conventional world and the scientific explanation. Where one finds instances of empirical evidence suggesting something to be the case then since one is engaged in the common area of discourse and analysis, one must accept the validity of the empirical evidence.
However this is not to suggest that according to Buddhism all facts of the world, all phenomena can be understood simply by using one’s critical faculties as ordinary individuals. For example there is an understanding that given the present state of one’s cognitive abilities there are certain facts and phenomena that lay, at least for the time being outside the scope of one’s comprehension or realization.
Therefore in Buddhism a distinction is made between three classes of phenomena. One is known as evident or manifest phenomena, phenomena that one can directly experience and perceive through one’s ordinary senses and so on. Second are the slightly hidden phenomena or slightly obscured phenomena which one can still understand through inference, through using reasoning. Through the process of reasoning one can gain a cognition or recognition of these phenomena.
The third category of phenomena is described as extremely or deeply hidden and these are phenomena that at the moment, given one’s limited current cognitive capabilities, these phenomena lay beyond one’s present abilities to understand. These can only be understood on the basis of the testimony of someone who has gained direct experience of these. The acceptance of this category of phenomena must be based upon the valid testimony of third person. I often use the example or analogy of one’s birth date. Each of us knows our particular date of birth however this is knowledge that we have not acquired firsthand. All of us have acquired this through someone else’s testimony such as our parents or government officials. If it was one’s parents who told that a certain date was the date of our birth then one accepts that as a valid statement as there is no reason why one’s parents should lie. Also one can rely on their words as authorities.
There are of course exceptions. These days in India we Tibetans need to make travel documents or registration papers. Sometimes there is flexibility on the dates. If the purpose is to seek retirement then one increases one’s age and if the purpose is to seek employment then one reduces one’s age. Of course these are different circumstances but generally one accepts the testimony of a third person that such-and-such a date is one’s date of birth.
Similarly in Buddhism there is an understanding of this third class of phenomena which are extremely hidden and extremely obscure a fact that one accepts on the basis of scriptural authority of the Buddha. Again here the acceptance of this authority is not simplistic simply by saying Buddha was a holy person. This is not the case. Again the procedure for accepting his authority requires certain proper procedures. For example one of the principals of Buddhist analysis is known as the Four Reliances. One does not rely on the person but on their words. One does not rely on mere words but the meaning behind the words and so on.
So one subjects the authority of the Buddha to analysis first by critically examining other scriptures where he made claims that are susceptible to critical reasoning such as the Four Noble Truths and so on. If one finds those able to withstand critical analysis and prove them to be true then one takes this into account. One also takes into account the fact that there was no ulterior motive of the part of the Buddha to make these claims; there is no reason why the Buddha would be making false claims. So it is through a combination of various considerations that one accepts the authority of a third person. It is not the case that everything, all events and phenomena are accessible to one as an ordinary being at the moment with one’s present cognitive faculties.
As I explained before the essence, the principal core of the practice of the Buddha’s teachings is the cultivation of bodhicitta, the altruistic aspiration to attain Buddhahood. This as Asanga points out in his Mahayanasutralamkara, the Ornament of Mahayana Scriptures where he states that the root cause of bodhicitta is compassion, so one needs to cultivate great compassion. When one speaks of bodhicitta it is defined as a state of mind, an aspiration that is endowed with two components. One is the wish to bring about the attainment of enlightenment and the second is the aspiration to bring about the welfare of other sentient beings.
[Its roots are compassion; it is desired; its constant aim is the happiness of others; liberation and dharma are also the object of sufficient knowledge.]
Mahayanasutralamkara Ch. IV Verse 3
As I explained yesterday each of these two components that together lead to the experience of bodhicitta must be cultivated separately. For example in order to cultivate the aspiration to attain Buddhahood, one must first, especially if one is to follow the way of the intelligent practitioner, develop a deep understanding of what is meant by the enlightenment that one is aspiring for. So therefore one must have some degree of understanding of the concept of liberation, the meaning of the cessation of suffering. When one here speaks of cessation one is primarily speaking of the cessation of the origin of suffering, the afflictions. In order to develop a genuine, deeply felt aspiration to attain such a cessation, one must have a degree of understanding of the nature of the afflictions. What kinds of afflictions are there? What are their dynamics? What degrees of subtlety exist amongst these afflictions?
One must ultimately gain a deep understanding of the distorted nature of delusion, which is the grasping at the true existence of phenomena. Without such a deep understanding of the meaning of liberation, the meaning of moksha it is simply not possible to have a genuine understanding of what is meant by the omniscient state of Buddhahood. Without this understanding one will not be able to cultivate a deeply felt yearning or aspiration to attain this. This is one component.
The other component is the aspiration to bring about others’ wellbeing and this is the altruistic dimension, compassion. In order to cultivate such great compassion that aspires to bring about others’ wellbeing two things are required. First is the experience of deep empathy and connectedness towards all sentient beings with a sense of the unbearableness of their suffering. One then has a deep experience of empathy and connectedness with all other sentient beings. This again needs to be cultivated separately.
Along with this it is also important to develop a deeper understanding of the nature of suffering that one wishes others to be free of. The view of suffering in Buddhism is the three different types of suffering as I described yesterday, the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change and the all-pervasive suffering of conditioning. In the context of developing deep insight into the nature of suffering one is primarily concerned with the third level of suffering. This is because as far as the first level of suffering, obvious or evident suffering, even animals can recognize this as undesirable and all being wish to be relieved of these sufferings.
With regard to the second level of suffering, the suffering of change even non-Buddhist meditators can develop the aspiration to be free from this type of suffering but can also gain a degree of temporary release from this type of suffering. For example when an individual experiences or attains high levels of meditative states such as the Four Form Realm Levels, these levels are characterized by the absence of any gross pleasure or pain. These levels are characterized by an experience of total neutrality. So one can say that temporarily even these states are free of the suffering of change.
However it is for the cessation of the third level of suffering that one must cultivate a deep understanding. Freedom from this level of suffering is what is meant by nirvana. So when one speaks of the Dharma in the context of Buddhism, Dharma here refers to nirvana and this nirvana is the cessation of the third level of suffering. When one develops a deep aspiration to gain this realization then one has effectively cultivated the aspiration to attain liberation, which is renunciation.
The need to cultivate a deeper insight into suffering indicates how the practices of the initial scope and middling scope must precede the actual practice of bodhicitta. Seeking to be released from the first and second levels of suffering is the main objective of the practice of the initial scope. All of the practices related to seeking freed…(End of day)