The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 10

First, a follow-up to Tuesday’s post: A Chinese court has sentenced 46 year old Buddhist monk Lobsang Tsundue to 11 years imprisonment for allegedly “killing” his nephew, Rigzin Phuntsog, a 16-year old monk who set himself on fire last March. Tsundue was found guilty of hiding Phuntsog which prevented the boy from receiving emergency medical treatment for 11 hours. Eyewitnesses claim that that after Chinese security personnel doused the flames, they severely beat Phuntsog’s charred body. Tsundue, they said, was trying to save his nephew from any further beating. Tsundue’s supporters also claim that young monk Phuntsog died as a result of the beatings and not from his self-immolation.

In related news, the former Tibet Communist Party chief Zhang Qingli who led China’s hard-line policy against the Dalai Lama and his supporters, has a new job and a new target.

Zhang Qingli, aka “The Tibetan bulldog”, has been appointed Communist Party Secretary of Hebei province, home to about one quarter of China’s Roman Catholics.  According to the, Hebei province is “where tensions between the state and the Vatican run at their highest.”

Although there is no evidence that Zhang Qingli plans to mercilessly persecute the Catholics, and perhaps unfair to suggest that he will, it’s still a safe bet things will be no picnic for them in the foreseeable future, because if you know anything at all about modern day China, you know that the government has no use for religion or spirituality.

And now, here’s another exciting episode featuring the guy the Chinese government just loves to hate:

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part X

Day Two – Morning Session

After leading the audience in a short sutra recitation and a series of mantras, the Dalai Lama begins the morning session with a long question-and-answer period. Since some of the questions dealt with specific topics within the Tibetan tradition, they have not been included. Some of the answers have been condensed and summarized.

Q: When you are talking about finding the nature of one’s mind, clear and knowing, in relationship to the past, present and future; and finding the empty space and consequently expanding it, as a concentration – how does this assist the attainment of one’s understand of selflessness?

A: When we are talking about the nature of the mind or consciousness, we must bear in mind that there are two different levels. One is the relative level and one is the ultimate level. So when we are talking about the possibility of actually defining the nature of the mind through a meditative process of preventing the arising of thoughts of the past and anticipation of the future and remaining in the present, then we are dealing with the nature of the mind at the conventional or relative level.

Of course, through such a meditative approach if one is able to develop a greater degree of awareness of the relative nature of the mind in the form of mere knowing or luminosity, then it could have positive benefits. When you reflect upon the emptiness of the mind, you can have a greater clarity, a clearer identification of mind itself.

As far as the actual nature of emptiness is concerned, which is the absence or the negation of the intrinsic reality, one cannot make a distinction between the emptiness of vast space and the emptiness of the mind. However, the difference in the subject or object upon which you meditate on emptiness – there is going to be a difference in the impact or effect it will have on your mind. For example, compared to the reflection on the emptiness of [? Word unclear.] certainly reflection on the emptiness of mind will have a greater effect. Also, in the Madhyamaka commentaries, in their discussions of how all the negativities of the mind are, through meditation, calmed or purified or dissolved into emptiness – the reference here is to the emptiness of mind. Similarly, when we talk about the qualities of the Buddha’s wisdom and transcendent mind, one of the dimensions of the dharma-kaya [dharma body] is said to be the emptiness of the mind.

Q: When people ask if Buddhist believe in soul, I don’t know how to answer them. It seems that they are asking about spirit, a belief in a higher power than the ordinary human being’s consciousness. Is the biggest problem semantics?

A: There is probably an element of semantics. Although I use the English word ‘spirit’ or ‘soul,’ I must admit that I do not really know the full implications of these English terms. However, when Buddhists talk about whether or not there is ‘self’, we must take into account the context in which this discourse on no-self takes place. Within the historical context of Indian Buddhism the discourse is about whether or not atman [Brahman concept of a permanent self that is one essence with Brahma or god.] exists. By rejecting atman, Buddhists are not rejecting existence or any basis on which the natural sense of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ arises. Buddhist are not rejecting that. What is being rejected, in the anatman theory, is the metaphysical concept where atman is said to be a metaphysical reality that is eternal and permanent. The problem arises for certain philosophers to accommodate that never-ending continuum with the transient nature of life.

Certainly your point that sometimes the difficulty being semantics is very true. If we were to understand by the word ‘soul’ a basis upon which the natural sense of thoughts of ‘I am’ arise within the individual being, then we could say that soul exists. However, if one understands by the word ‘soul’ a metaphysical reality, like the atman theory, and is independent of mind and body, independent of mental and physical aggregates, something  that is self-sufficient, autonomous, and so on – then, of course, that concept is not tenable in Buddhist thought.

Q: What do you recommend as a daily meditation for a lay person who is not skilled in meditative practices? Something to use in the morning after waking up and at night before falling asleep.

A: There is a set of verses from the Ratnavali, The Precious Garland [see below] which could be used as a daily recitation and also as seeds for thought. So that you read through and reflect on the meanings of these verses on a daily basis. Or one could personally select certain extracts from a text like The Precious Garland, certain key passages as a basis for daily practice.

Continue reading “The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 10”


Sharing the crime, Doing the time, Making it rhyme

Young Phuntsog Jarutsang

He who allows oppression shares the crime.
– Desiderius Erasmus

On March 16, 2011, the third anniversary of the demonstrations that shook up Tibet in 2008, a young Tibetan monk named Phuntsok Jarutsang set himself on fire to protest the Chinese government’s continued oppression of the Tibetan people. According to reports, police officers extinguished the flames and then proceeded to beat the young monk mercilessly. He died in a hospital from injuries sustained from the beating. He was 21.

Now, Chinese authorities had announced that they plan to prosecute three Tibetan monks for their involvement in the death of the young monk. According to Voice of America, “China’s state run news agency Xinhua said Friday the court in Aba in Sichuan province is charging two of his fellow monks for plotting and assisting in the self-immolation. A third monk is being charged with moving or hiding the injured Phuntsog, preventing him from getting medical care, which lead to his death.”

All four monks were members of Kirti Monastery, which for months has been under siege from Chinese security forces who allegedly beat monks and set attack dogs on them. U.N. human rights investigators are still calling for China to disclose the “fate and whereabouts” of more than 300 monks who disappeared after being rounded up by police at the monastery. China is still defending its treatment of the monks who have been forced to undergo “re-education.” The Chinese government insists it has a right to interfere with “religious affairs.”

And the U.S. news media is still pretty much ignoring the situation. Nor is there any great outcry from the U.S. Government.

Casey Anthony studying Buddhism? Her attorney Jose Baez says she currently receiving “spiritual counseling.” Apparently one of her other attorneys, Dorothy Clay Sims, owns a place called the Vision Farm Retreat and Meditation Center in McIntosh, Florida. According to, Vision Farm Retreat and Meditation Center is a Thich Nhat Hanh community in Florida. Don’t visit their website, though. It takes you to a spam site. Naturally there’s some speculation about this connection (the lawyer and Thich Nhat Hanh) but then spiritual counseling could mean almost anything . . .

I’m not a big fan of “The Dude.” First off, I hate that word. Always makes me think of Keanu Reeves for some reason. Or Wayne’s World. Dude was not part of the lexicon of the Sixties. It came along much later when things started going seriously downhill. Likewise, “The Big Lebowski,” is not my favorite Coen Brothers film. I don’t have anything against The Dude. I’ve known a few people in that mold. However, I actually prefer my existentialist heroes to have a bit more class and sophistication. That being the case, I don’t have much interest in whether The Dude abides or not.

I am, however, a fan of the guy who played The Dude, Jeff Bridges. He’s had a couple of very good years here. Recently, he has made it known that he has some interest in Buddhism. In his typically understated and modest way, he has not made a big noise about it.

Bridges has also just released his second musical album, entitled Jeff Bridges, which he describes as “blues and country hymns.” It’s in the same groove as the music from “Crazy Heart” and produced by the man who put the music together for that film, T-Bone Burnett. The album has the kind of sound I like. I don’t think it’s going to set the world on fire. But, you never know.

One of the songs, “Tumbling Vine” begins with these words,

Here is the freedom
I have been sent
I’m delighted
I’m buddhistly bent.

“Buddhistly bent” sounds a little Dudeistic to me, but it’s cool nonetheless. The song isn’t bad either. You can listen to it here on Yahoo Music.


Hatteras Calling

Irene prior to landfall. (NASA)

Hurricane Irene made landfall near Cape Hatteras, NC, on Saturday morning and then sluggishly churned its way up the Eastern Seaboard.

The cape is part of Hatteras Island, one of those barrier islands they call the Outer Banks. It has been hit by hurricanes 104 times in the last 140 years. It gets a direct hit about once every 4.34 years. Hurricanes affect Hatteras every 1.35 years on average. The last time was September 2010 when Hurricane Earl passed within 70 miles. In 2003, Isabel hit Hatteras hard, causing extensive damage to the entire Outer Banks

In August of 1889, William Aiken, a surgeon and his wife, Anna who was seven months pregnant, were on a short voyage along the coast. According to one account,

Their ship was caught in a hurricane, floundering against the rocky shore off Cape Hatteras, and William and Anna were handed to safety with the air of a human chain formed by the crew only a short time before a wave washed away the deckhouse where their cabin was located. But Anna suffered no ill effects, and she and her husband reached their new home . . . There on August 5, 1899, their first child was born . . .”

That child was Conrad Aiken, a poet I profiled a few weeks back. He wrote the following poem which is so terribly apropos for this weekend.

Hatteras Calling

Southeast, and storm, and every weather vane
shivers and moans upon its dripping pin,
ragged on chimneys the cloud whips, the rain
howls at the flues and windows to get in,

the golden rooster claps his golden wings
and from the Baptist Chapel shrieks no more,
the golden arrow in the southeast sings
and hears on the roof the Atlantic Ocean roar.

Waves among wires, sea scudding over poles,
down every alley the magnificence of rain,
dead gutters live once more, the deep manholes
hollow in triumph a passage to the main.

Umbrellas, and in the Gardens one old man
hurries away along a dancing path,
listens to music on a watering-can,
observes among the tulips the sudden wrath,

pale willows thrashing to the needled lake,
and dinghies filled with water; while the sky
smashes the lilacs, swoops to shake and break,
till shattered branches shriek and railings cry.

Speak, Hatteras, your language of the sea:
scour with kelp and spindrift the stale street:
that man in terror may learn once more to be
child of that hour when rock and ocean meet.


Hurricane info:
Aiken info: Edward Butscher, Poet of White Horse Vale (University of Georgia Press, 2010)



The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 9

Again I hope that people are enjoying this series. I know of a couple of people out there who are, although enjoy is probably not the right word . . .

In any case, there is still a long ways to go as we are just finishing with Day One in this installment:

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part IX

But the Victors said that
the Dharma of the highest good
is the subtle and profoundly appearing;
it is frightening to unlearned, childish beings.

From verse 25 the discussion moves on to the dharma and three associated practices related to the attainment of what the text calls the highest good. The highest good here refers to liberation or nirvana. And it is said to be the highest good in the sense that liberation constitutes the definitive attainment and happiness and it is also positive in all its aspects.

Now the question is why is liberation or nirvana said to be the highest good? Here my explanation is from the point of view of the Madhyamaka [the Middle Way school of Nagarjuna] philosophy. It is said to be the highest good because liberation or nirvana is constituted by the total overcoming or elimination of the state of existence that is characterized by ignorance and the bondage of clinging to self. So long as one remains in a state where one is clinging to self-existence, there is no real scope for lasting joy or happiness because such an individual remains in the bondage of karma and afflictions of the mind. Therefore, any effort toward total freedom from that kind of bondage really constitutes the highest form of attainment.

When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he taught the first truth, the truth of suffering, in terms of description of the four characteristics of suffering. The first being impermanence. The fact that existence in the unenlightened states is transient, ultimately unsatisfying, there is emptiness [Skt. Sunyata] and there is an absence of self-existence. When we talk about impermanence, in a conventional sense, one can have a rough understanding in terms of the continuum of life. But that is a coarse understanding of the transient nature.

The transient nature being taught here as one of the cardinal characteristics of existence should be viewed in terms of its dynamic process, its ever changing nature. It is momentary but even in the individual instances themselves, the moment they come into being are in the nature of disintegration. It is not as if things come into being first and then some third condition or some other factor cause it to cease to exist. It’s not the case. Whatever phenomena comes into being, the very instant they are born, they are born with the full mechanism for their disintegration.

One could say that the very cause that creates them also creates the destruction of the phenomena, so that the seed or mechanism for disintegration is built within the phenomena itself. So now, we apply that subtle meaning of impermanence to ourselves in an unenlightened form. We are then talking about an understanding of the causal process, where the two primary causes are negative karma and afflictions of the mind. Underlying all of the afflictions of the mind is the cardinal root cause, which is described as avidya or ignorance.

The very word avidya or ignorance in itself show a state that one cannot really endorse as positive. It is said to be fundamentally confused, so, surely it cannot be a state that is desirable. The point is that if our existence is said to be completely determined and conditioned by that fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world, how can there be scope for lasting freedom or lasting peace. Therefore, it becomes crucial to see whether that advidya or fundamental ignorance can be eliminated.

Now, of course, within the Buddhist tradition there are divergent opinions as to what is the nature of ignorance. Such masters as Asanga [Buddhist philosopher who was the creative force behind the Yogacara school and the “Mind-Only” doctrine] made distinctions between self-grasping – the mind grasping at self-existence on one hand and ignorance on the other. Asanga, and others like him, saw ignorance more in terms of an inactive state, a mere not-knowing, where other Buddhist thinkers such as Dharamkirti [a Buddhist logician] and many Madhyamaka philosophers defined ignorance as an active state of mis-knowing, relating to the world in a distorted way of perceiving. In that sense, the self-grasping mind itself is the fundamental ignorance. From the last point of view, the quest for freedom from Samsara [the cycle of birth and death fueled by ignorance] really becomes the quest to dispel ignorance and its mortal apprehension.

One could say that this fundamental ignorance is the definitive enemy within us. As Shantideva’s Bodicaryavatara, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”, points out, the power and the extent of harm that the internal enemy can inflict upon us should cause us to view ignorance as the most definitive and inner-most enemy that we combat.

When we talk about ignorance, we must know that, to a large extent, it is something that is natural and innate within us and sometimes this naturally flowed way of viewing life can be reinforced by philosophical speculation. So when the Buddhist teaching of anatma or no-self is taught, often it can create a sense of unease within us. Because the grasping for self-existence is so deeply rooted in us, reflection on the fundamental Buddhist teaching of anatma can create some discomfort. Especially for those in whom this inherent self-grasping is further reinforced by metaphysical speculation – for them the sense of discomfort or unease can be even greater.

I can tell you a story about an Indian from Behar, who later became a Buddhist and part of the monastic order. One day I was teaching to him the doctrine of anatma, no-self, and when I mentioned to him that Buddhism rejects the concept of a soul, the person was literally shaking. So this shows how a genuine reflection of this most basic Buddhist teaching of no-self can go against the deeply imbedded ways of viewing the world that we possess.

This is what is meant by verse 26, where it reads, “the teaching of selflessness terrifies the childish./For the Wise, it puts an end to fear.”

For the wise, the teaching of selflessness really shows that there is an opening to getting out of this condition of being in an unenlightened state of existence.

In verse 27, it reads that,

All beings arise from fixation on self
such that they (thereby) are fixated on ‘mine’;
this is what has been stated
by the one who speaks solely for the sake of beings.

Given that it is this grasping at the concept of self-existence which gives rise to the unenlightened forms of existence, the Buddha has taught, out of compassion for all sentient beings, the path which would liberate all out of that bondage. The path here refers to the path of no-self.

So we will leave at that. Those of you who have deeper interests in what we have discussed so far, I would suggest that you reread the sections that we have covered today and try to reflect on their meanings. So, through this way, you will gain greater benefit.

Since the process of understanding takes place in the form of attaining different levels of understanding, and in the scriptures there is a description of a procedure where one arrives at an understanding derived through study and listening and which can then develop into the second level of understanding, which is contemplation, which goes to the third level of understanding-through-meditation. In the first level of study, listening and hearing, what is important is to be able to train and focus when listening and studying so that one can deepen one’s insight. So this is why in the sutras there is the advice that you should listen well and then put what you have heard into heart. So, it is listening well and the using one’s faculty of mindfulness that one can then put into memory what one has learned.

Both knowledge and mindfulness are very important in insuring that we are successful in living a life-style which is in the bounds of an ethically disciplined way of life. So when we talk about mindfulness [Pali: anapanasati, literally, mindfulness of breath], we are not always talking about being self-conscious, but rather an underlying alertness. So that we are ever-vigilant, so that when we are confronted with situations that demand an ethical judgment, because of our underlying mindfulness, we are instinctively able to respond in the right manner, and therefore, without knowledge we won’t know how best to act or what ethical way to act. So when there is knowledge, but no mindfulness, then that knowledge is not beneficial, so you need both knowledge and mindfulness.

So that is all, we will end the session with a prayer of dedication.

[The Dalai Lama leads the monks on stage in chanting a short prayer in Tibetan.]

[in English] Thank you, good night.



To be continued . . .


Thinking the Unthinkable, Saying the Ineffable

I am about t sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening. – Bob Dylan

Last week’s installment of the Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland included this quote by the German existentialist philosopher, Karl Jaspers[1. Karl Jaspers, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plotinus, Lao-Tzu, Nagarjuna: From the Great Philosophers The Original Thinkers (Harcourt Brace, 1974).]:

Nagarjuna strives to think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable. He knows this and tries to unsay what he has said.”

Some folks might wonder, if it is unthinkable or inexpressible then how can it be thought or spoken, and why does Nagarjuna contradict himself?

First, it is helpful to remind ourselves what we are dealing with. One writer, F.C. Happold[2. F.C. Happold, Mysticism A Study and an Anthology (Penguin, 1971), 159.], has said,

One of the difficulties for the Westerner in his effort to understand Buddhism is the particular language in which so many Buddhist writings are couched. It is often a language of paradox and non-duality. One is called upon to penetrate through this paradoxical, non-dualistic language to get at the inner meaning.”

Statue of Nagarjuna at Samye Ling Monastery

This is especially true of Nagarjuna, the master of paradox with his arguments on logical contradiction. And with Nagarjuna, we have an additional element in that he had a problem with language. He found it inadequate, incapable of accurately describing reality. At best, it provides us signs, semblances of reality. These signs, however, are false, for as language shapes our view of the world, it obscures the truth.

Jaspers says,

All designations are meaningless: When I speak, I suppose that the signs (nimitta) I employ ‘signify’ things. If for example I wish to speak of becoming and perishing, I must devise different signs. But designation and differentiation lead us into error. Designation and thing designated cannot be one, nor can they be different . . .

To live by signs is to live in illusion . . . But every man lives by signs when he lives in the realm of appearance – whether he assumes that “appearance is a sign,” or that “appearance is empty,” when he lives in the assumption ‘I live’ or ‘I am conscious’ . . .”

Language must have its subject and object, its designation and differentiation, its duality, which produces a tendency to seize objects and cling to them. And it is this tendency that is said to be the root of suffering. Non-differentiation and non-conceptual thinking is offered as an antidote.

Although Nagarjuna makes a distinction between the ultimate truth and the relative or conventional truth, in the end the ultimate truth is no truth: “No definite statement is possible.”

Conventionally speaking, we can say that things exist and they have the nature of interdependency. From the ultimate truth, we say that things do not have intrinsic existence. They are empty. But even this ultimate standpoint is, in the final analysis, only a conventional view.


All things that arise interdependently,
I declare as emptiness.
This is a conventional designation;
it is the Middle Way.

Here Nagarjuna is making it clear that even emptiness is a relative truth. All truth is relative, in this sense, because truth is always expressed conventionally. Jay Garfield, in The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way[3. Jay Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way (Oxford University Press, 1995), 280.], explains,

Nagarjuna has been urging all along that ultimately all things are empty. It would be very easy to interpret him to mean that from the ultimate standpoint, we can say of phenomena that they are empty. But here he quite deliberately undermines that interpretation, claiming instead that nothing can be literally said of things from such a standpoint. For ultimately there is no entity of which emptiness or nonemptiness that can be predicated. Nor can we say that things are neither empty nor nonempty. For that would contradict the fact that from the standpoint of one using conventional language and cognition, it is correct to characterize phenomena as empty.

I don’t know about you, but this tends to make my head spin.

Forging ahead anyway, the bottom line, as far as my understanding goes, is that “it” is unthinkable and ineffable not because it is some transcendent, sacred reality, but because reality itself, whether in the relative or ultimate aspect, can never be fully known through conceptual thinking, nor can it ever be expressed adequately using conventional language.

Emptiness is not the ultimate reality. As Nagarjuna indicated above, it is merely a conventional designation. However, it is a pathway to enlightenment. Perhaps it is the most expedient means in which to realize awakening, for it demolishes all concepts, and like a vajra-sword it cuts through all delusions. Nagarjuna often compares emptiness-knowledge with Prajna-paramita or Transcendent Wisdom.

I don’t feel we should always assume that words like “transcendent” are used to imply a mystical reality or experience. Enlightenment is just seeing things as they truly are, empty of intrinsic self-being. Frederick Streng notes, “Emptiness is an answer to the quest for enlightenment when it promotes a practical solution to the problem of sorrow.”[4. Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness A Study in Religious Meaning (The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 163.] Through cultivating awareness of the absence of self-being in things, we transcend the limits of language and the conceptual thinking that tends to reinforce our sense of self, another root of suffering.

Mahayana teaches that Samsara is Nirvana. Where is the ultimate reality? You’re in it right now. I feel that Nagarjuna would like to tell us not to be so concerned with ultimate realities and truths. The conventional, the mundane is more important, because that’s where we are, and it’s much more of a challenge overall to develop a profound awareness of things in the everyday world, than it is to “think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable.” Besides, it’s already been done.